When Team USA’s Tony Azevedo arrives in Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympics, he will be at home.
Azevedo was born in Rio to parents who played water polo. While he grew up in California, today he lives in São Paulo, Brazil, where he plays water polo professionally and is trying to help build that country’s water polo program.
He also has made a home in Olympics pools. “At 14 years old, I was a ball boy at the ’96 Olympic games [in Atlanta, Georgia], and I saw the Spaniards win the gold medal,” Azevedo said. “It really changed my life — I wanted to represent my country, I wanted to be an Olympian.”
He quit all of his other sports to focus on the aquatic sport, a fast-paced cross between rugby and football, played in a deep pool. Seven players per team face off to hurl a ball past the opposing goalkeeper.
“Water polo’s the toughest sport in the world,” Azevedo said. “Because you’re doing everything.”
The sport is physical — players are constantly wrestling for position in the water — but also very strategic.
Here, Azevedo said he has an advantage. “You get such great athletes at a young age, but they’re never great until they’re older” because of how much a mental sport water polo is, he said.
After 20 years at an Olympic level, Azevedo is in top form. At the 2015 water polo World Championships, Azevedo scored a team-high 15 goals.
Azevedo’s journey to any Olympics almost never happened. When he was 4 years old, he was pretending to be the “He-Man” comic hero and fell off a rabbit cage, severing his throat and lungs. His heart stopped beating on the operating table. His parents were told their son would never be able to play sports because of the injuries he sustained at such an early age. They proved the doctors wrong.
Now 34, Azevedo is swimming in history. At 18, Azevedo became the youngest U.S. water polo player, joining the squad for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. He’s been with the team ever since, leading the U.S. to a silver Olympic medal in 2008 in Beijing.
Azevedo is happy that his fifth shot at a Olympic gold medal is happening in Brazil.
“Rio’s my second city, my second home,” he said.
The water polo tournament at the Olympics will run from August 6 to 20. You can follow Azevedo at @WaterPoloTony, along with your favorite teams.