Dejan Udovicic, head coach of the USA Men’s National water polo team, does not lack for confidence. Tapped in May 2013 to revive the fortunes of an American men’s program that finished a disappointing eighth in the 2012 London Olympics, Udovicic is readying the US for the upcoming 2016 Olympics in Brazil and — equally important — changing the culture of a program that has been denied Olympic gold since the 1904 games in St. Louis.
“I didn’t come [to America] for a team that will finish on the international level in fifth, or seventh or eighth place in the world,” Udovicic — a stocky, powerfully-built 45 year-old — said poolside at the 2015 CWPA Men’s Water Polo Championships last November. “I came here to win all the tournaments we play and become the first seed in the world.”
<Click here for full transcript of Udovicic interview>
Bold words perhaps but Udovicic has enjoyed success at every level of water polo he has been involved with. First as a player for VK Partizan, Serbia’s premier water polo club, then as Partizan’s head coach from 2000 – 2009, when he led the club to four national championships, four national cups and an appearance in the Euroleague final four. A tenure helming Serbia’s Olympic program was also fruitful: the Serbs captured bronze in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. The roster that Udovicic built remains mostly intact; ten players from the past two Olympics will compete in 2016 for Serbia, considered to be the world’s best squad.
Change Will Take Time
A Serbian native who now resides near USA Water Polo’s California headquarters, Udovicic has tremendous faith in the system he has installed to streamline the US’s diverse network of youth, college, club and masters programs. And he has his eye on both the present and future.
“[I]f you want to be first in the world you must create the system,” he said. “We’re trying to build the national team roster at the same time to prepare the team for the upcoming year 2020 because, 2016, I’m not a foolish guy, I have to be realistic there’s an advantage for some European powerhouse in 2016.”
Following a seventh place finish in the 2015 FINA World Men’s Championship last August, some polo watchers wondered if the US was merely treading water, predicting another back of the bracket finish in the upcoming Rio Olympics that begin August 6th at the Maria Lenk Aquatic Center in Barra da Tijuca.
Udovicic is unmoved by these concerns.
“The community needs to understand that my point of view is [a] 70 – 75% different approach [from the past],” he said of his detractors. “My job is to see what someone cannot see right now: I need to see what’s going to happen in two years, what’s going to happen in three years, choose that direction, and prepare the players for that level [so] they can be ready.”
Young US Squad a “Dangerous Team”?
“USA national team is the youngest team in the world right now and [has] the brightest future worldwide,” said its coach. “I’m telling everyone, from my plan we are moving forward a little bit faster than I expected because [with] a lot of motivation… we became a really good team.”
With the coming Olympic games. Udovicic’s challenge is to mesh the old and the new. Some of the stars responsible for America’s remarkable run to a silver medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics remain on the US roster 8 years later. That core — the ageless Tony Azevedo, goalie Merrill Moses and fearsome attacker Jessie Smith — are now well into their thirties.
But it’s the youngsters on his squad that the US coach has his eye on, including Ben Hallock, a 6-5 set who is all of 19 years old and left-handed attacker Thomas Dunstan, currently a senior in high school.
Then there’s 6-8 goalie McQuin Barron, a 20 year-old sophomore at USC, of whom Udovicic says: “Two – three years from now he will become the best goalie in the world. There’s no doubt. There is no doubt.”
Saying “there is no difference between younger and older players,” Udovicic issued what might be a warning to future opponents.
“We’ve become a really, really dangerous team. And still, we are growing. We’ve got a lot of room to develop.”
Playing For Gold And National Pride
Given his Olympic experience, America’s foreign-born coach understands the boost playing for one’s country brings and is hopeful this intangible will prove decisive at what promises to be a challenging Olympic tournament.
“USA kids and our players have more national pride than anyone,” Udovicic said. “[But] we don’t use that energy. I came to be first and I show them the mentality they need to follow, that they don’t need to be afraid of anyone.:
If the Americans are to medal at Rio they will likely have to face their coach’s old team. Winners of back-to-back FINA World Championships and headlined by Filip Filipović, one of the sport’s most prolific scorers — who Udovicic’s selected for the national team in 2005 — Serbia is considered the favorite for Olympic gold.
Udovicic would likely prefer nothing better than beating the best in the game.
“I learned from Serbia that if you want to be successful you [must set] the highest goals. I am not afraid to put in front of us high goals in the future,” he said.