Team USA rookies shine in Rio with veterans’ help

Brittney Griner is a rookie Olympian and said she looks up to veteran and teammate Diana Taurasi. (Photo by Jaclyn Chung/Cronkite News)

RIO DE JANEIRO – Two-thirds of Team USA is made up of rookies.

Thanks to the wisdom of Olympic veterans, rookies seem to have fit right in at the 2016 Rio Games.

“Before you go to an Olympics you don’t know what it’s going to be like,” said Mariya Koroleva, two-time Team USA Olympic synchronized swimmer. “People can tell you, but really it’s a whole different animal.”

Of the 555 athletes on Team USA, only 189 of those are returning veterans. That marks a 20 percent decrease in U.S. Olympic veterans from the London Games.

But the rookies are taking over the medals won on Team USA. As of Friday night, 82 of the 144 athletes that have medaled thus far in the games have been rookies.

Koroleva said this time around in Rio, it was less stressful because she now knew how to prepare herself mentally and stay aware of her emotions before jumping in the pool.

She said she was glad she had the experience of competing in London as a newbie, because she was able to relay the information to her rookie partner, Anita Alvarez. That previous Olympic experience helped Koroleva and Alvarez, as they finished ninth overall in Rio, a better finish for Koroleva than in 2012.

The mindset of these experienced veterans seem to be similar across the pool, as the USA men’s water polo team was home to five-time veteran Tony Azevedo and three-time veteran Merrill Moses.

“[The older guys] are not shy to share wisdom, and we aren’t shy to ask,” said Josh Samuels, a rookie on the Team USA men’s water polo team. “From how we are going to feel to how we are going to guard different guys, we have been talking about it at practice, we have been preparing for it as best as we can.”

Team USA men’s water polo was dominated by rookies this year; nine out of the 13 players are competing in the games for the first time. This year’s team dynamic is a stark comparison to the London Games, where 11 out of the 13 men were returners from the 2008 team.

Samuels said thanks to the guidance of Moses, who was back for the third time, the rookies have been training like professionals to make it to this far.

“Try to take the nerves out of it [competing]… obviously you are going to be a little nervous,” Moses said when asked how he helps the rookies prepare. “I think once the ball drops and you get that first whistle blown, I think all the preparation is going to come out and we will all be good.”

Samuels and other rookies say they look up to Moses and other veterans, thriving off their passion and love for the sport. Unfortunately, the men did not advance to the quarterfinals, which placed them 10th overall. In London, the team finished 8th. Moses gave advice to his rookies saying, “as long as you prepare for the Olympics, what’s going to happen is going to happen.”

Not only do teammates help each other get ready to compete at the Olympics, former Olympians also share their personal experience.

In the 1988 Games, when Arizona State diving coach Mark Bradshaw jumped off the board into his first Olympics, he learned the importance of relaxing when you’re front and center. Bradshaw brought that wisdom to ASU as he coached current Olympian, Michele Benedetti in 2006.

“I think the big difference there for us is having an Olympian as a coach, because Bradshaw went to the 1988 Games, and he knows what you need to get to this point, to get to those five rings,” Benedetti said. “I need to not get stressed, I don’t want to think about the result at the end, I just want to enjoy the ride.”

Benedetti finished 13th in the men’s 3-meter springboard.

Phoenix Mercury players Diana Taurasi, an Olympic veteran, and Brittney Griner, the rookie, are first-time Olympic teammates here in Rio. Griner said she looks up to Taurasi as an older sister and a role model…Taurasi thinks the same.

“She has really brought life back to my career,” Taurasi said about Griner. “You know when you get a little older, you always find things that inspire you, and the minute she got to Phoenix there was something about her … I loved her passion for the game.”

Rookies will turn into veterans over the next four years and hope to aid their new teammates in Tokyo.