An impressive run to the Olympic gold medal provided a convenient distraction for U.S. women's water polo coach Adam Krikorian. But beneath the quest to become an Olympic champion, Krikorian wrestled with the pain and grief of a sudden loss back home.
Just two days before the opening ceremony, Adam Krikorian learned of horrible news: His brother, Blake, had died suddenly while surfing off the coast. The 48-year-old had suffered a heart attack. With the Olympics just about to begin, Adam flew home, leaving his team behind.
Three days later, he was back to lead Team USA in its first match. Thousands of miles away from the epicenter of his personal torment, Krikorian found some comfort in watching his team compete.
"When you see a bunch of young adults and even young kids, some of them fighting to achieve their dream, it reminds me of the qualities my brother had," Krikorian said earlier in the tournament. "Which were hard work, passion, perseverance. In a lot of ways, this team reminds me of him. Their attitude, their approach reminds me a lot of just how my brother was and how he'd want us to be."
The U.S. beat Italy 12-5 in the gold-medal match Friday.
Blake was a success in his own right: The brothers had grown up in Mountain View, California, the heart of Silicon Valley. Blake had become a well-known startup entreprenuer, founding Sling Media with their younger brother, Jason. Blake, a former UCLA water polo player, had even been an early investor in Lyft.
So it was shocking to everyone when, on August 3, Adam Krikorian received an urgent message from his father back home. Adam FaceTimed him and saw the tears before the bad news came, telling him that Blake had died.
The next morning, he tried to save his athletes from shouldering his burden. He only told them that a tragedy had happened, and that he would need to leave for a few days. The team offered its support, and when Krikorian returned, the players showed they hadn't missed a beat, crushing rival Spain, 11-4.
In this year's Olympics, the U.S. women's water polo team has proven itself to be in a different stratosphere than the rest of the competition. Krikorian is a big part of that: Before he became the national team coach in 2009, he racked up 10 national championships coaching UCLA's men's and women's teams.
After the win against Italy, Krikorian expects a second wave of grief and struggle, especially as he returns home to rejoin a family still in mourning.
Winning was the goal, of course, but Adam didn't endorse the notion that his team was chasing gold in his brother's memory.
"Too much has been made of us or me winning for him," Krikorian told The Washington Post earlier in the week. "Obviously, he'd be rooting for us. But he would care more about how we did things. He would care more about working hard, about never giving up, about sticking together, preserving through the tough times.
"At the end of the day, you win or lose. He'd be happy and proud of this team no matter what happens."