Tokyo bound: six Tigers headed to Olympics in water polo
University of the Pacific water polo coach James Graham became increasingly proud and emotional as a crescendo of good news resulted in six standouts from Pacific being named 2021 Olympians.
Water Polo U, indeed. The nickname said it all during four days of roster announcements by the Australian, Canadian, Hungarian and United States water polo federations.
Four men and two women—five Pacific graduates and one current student-athlete—from the four countries are headed to Tokyo for the XXVIII Summer Olympics (July 23–Aug. 8).
“So many factors go into being an Olympian. The timing, the competition and so much more,” said Graham, coach of Pacific’s men’s and women’s teams. “To think that we have six athletes from Pacific in our sport in the Olympics … It is just amazing and I could not be more proud.”
The Tiger Olympians are:
Canadian women: Former All-American Kyra Christmas and second-year Pacific student-athlete Clara Vulpisi;
United States men: Alex Obert, headed to his second Olympics, and Ben Stevenson;
Hungarian men: Balazs Erdelyi, a two-time college player of the year at Pacific and a 2016 Olympian;
Australian men: Goran Tomasevic, one of the players who helped build the strong water polo foundation at Pacific.
The final bit of good news came Friday, July 2, when USA Water Polo announced its roster, which includes Obert and Stevenson.
“Alex and Ben called me with the news from Georgia. Not the state of Georgia, the country of Georgia,” Graham said. “It was such a great moment, hearing that news on a video call from overseas.”
Kyra Christmas and Carla Vulpisi, Canadian women
Christmas played at Pacific from 2016 to 2019. She was twice named Golden Coast Conference player of the year. Christmas had 211 career goals for the Tigers.
The Canadian team has been on the road for several weeks, playing exhibition games against the United States and taking part in European tournaments. Christmas has been a consistent scorer with considerable playing time for Canada in the pre-Olympic games.
Vulpisi was a goalie for Pacific in 2019, when she made 150 saves, had 39 steals (top five in the conference) and had a .470 save percentage in 22 games.
There were three Canadian goalies vying for two spots on the Olympic team. Vulpisi, who took a year off from playing for the Tigers to seek an Olympic roster spot, was able to make the team while still taking 34 credits remotely over two terms at Pacific.
“It is great to see two women who played together in college get this opportunity to be Olympians on the same team,” Graham said. “They both are such special people. They worked incredibly hard to get this opportunity.”
Alex Obert and Ben Stevenson, United States men
Obert played at Pacific from 2011 to 2015 and scored 157 goals as a three-time All-American.
Obert’s Olympic play in 2016 helped raise his stature on the current United States national team. He scored only two goals in Rio de Janeiro, but gained from the experience. A fierce competitor, Obert has been one of the team leaders heading into Tokyo.
Stevenson played from 2013 to 2017 for the Tigers. He notched 58 and 47 goals in his last two seasons.
Stevenson continued to improve throughout the extra year off (the Olympics were delayed due to the pandemic) and became a key player for the Americans during recent tournaments.
Obert and Stevenson played on the 2013 NCAA runner-up Pacific team along with Hungary’s Erdelyi and Australia’s Tomesevic.
“It is stunning to think that four players from our 2013 team are now playing in the same Olympics,” Graham said. “You just don’t see that sort of thing happen, and yet it did.”
Balazs Erdelyi, Hungarian men; Goran Tomasevic, Australian men
Erdelyi (2009–13) helped establish Pacific as a national power and twice won the Peter J. Cutino Award as the nation’s top player. He scored 96 goals in his senior year. Erdelyi was a member of Hungary’s 2016 Olympic squad.
Tomasevic’s college career was capped by his senior season (2013) when he scored three or more goals in 14 games. He had 202 career goals. Originally from Croatia, Tomasevic has lived in Australia since his time at Pacific.
“When I look back at where we were and what we have become as a program, I think much of it was because of three foundational players,” Graham said. “Balazs and Goran are two of those. The other is Alex Malkis who plays for Israel (which did not qualify for the Olympics). “We still talk about those players and recruit using the names of those players. They helped transform who we were. They are brilliant people, in the pool and in the classroom.”
Pacific graduate Luke Pavillard of Australia was in contention for an Olympic roster spot. He did not make the team, but will likely have a strong chance in 2024.
Graham’s only regret is he will not be able to see his players live in Tokyo because of Olympic attendance restrictions due to the pandemic.
“I would love to be there, but I still can’t wait to watch,” Graham said. “What is happening for us is very special.”