LONDON — Adam Krikorian wondered more than once whether becoming coach of the U.S. women's water polo team was a good career move.
The former UCLA player and coach took over in March 2009, less than two weeks before the team was to leave for the world championships. He got a wary reception from a group that had long been coached by Guy Baker, who became an administrator before leaving the U.S. program.
"When we first started in 2009 we were a disaster. We were torn apart," Krikorian said. "We had part of the team divided, I think, in how they felt about me as a coach. They, I think, were struggling."
So was he.
PHOTOS: USA Women's Water Polo
"I had many sleepless nights thinking I wasn't going to get it done. There were points during those first few months where I was close to hanging it up," he said. "They were difficult times."
Backed by his wife, Anicia, a former UCLA tennis standout, Krikorian stuck to his plan of building trust and communication and intensifying the competitive environment. The results were mixed, and a sixth-place finish at last year's world championships meant Team USA had to win the Pan Am Games championship to be sure of a London Olympic berth. The team came together and won a 20-round shootout over Canada in the title game, a significant moment for the program and for Krikorian.
"There were people who talked me off the ledge, and ultimately I'm very grateful for those people because this experience has been certainly one of the best experiences of my life and this team has grown so much," Krikorian said Friday during a pre-Olympics news conference. "Obviously, I never would have been able to see it if I hadn't been talked off the ledge."
The U.S. women, who lost the 2008 gold-medal game to the Netherlands, will make their London debut Monday against Hungary. They've won two silver medals and one bronze medal since women's water polo was added to the Olympics in 2000.
Team captain Brenda Villa said this group has the right combination "of rookies to grandmas" and has the tools to win gold this time. But that wasn't a certainty when Krikorian began.
"He was coming into a program that had had one coach for 10 years and had been successful, and when you get used to something being run a certain way, change is hard," she said. "So I think for him and for us it was a constant, 'How is this team going to be run?'
"I think ultimately everyone realized that we all wanted the same thing. We were going about it in different ways but we all wanted to be here in London, competing for that gold medal. So I think there is a lot of compromise, a lot of barriers down….I think our team is that much stronger because we had to go through those rocky moments at the beginning."
They hope those bad times are behind them.
"We all found ways to communicate and learn about each other and break down walls so that we could be vulnerable together and build a stronger unit," said Heather Petri, another four-time Olympian.
"I think it would be safe to say it's a completely different team."