Water polo was new to Alex Obert as a freshman at Del Oro High School in Loomis. So when he faced off against a more experienced senior defender during a scrimmage, he tried a move from a more familiar sport – basketball.
Obert turned his back to the defender and pushed toward the goal. Then he spun around and threw the ball into the back of the net for a score. His coach, Stu Ryland, was impressed.
“ ‘Where did you learn to do that?’ ” Ryland recalled asking Obert. “ ‘Just keep doing that.’ ”
Obert took Ryland’s advice. Ten years later, Obert still is backing down defenders, only now with the U.S. men’s water polo team that will compete in the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
“I’m so happy that all the work is paying off,” Obert, 24, said before leaving for Brazil. “If you love competition, like I do, there’s no better competition than the Olympic Games.”
Obert spent his childhood in constant competition with his sister, Belle, a former basketball and volleyball player at Butler who turned 23 Saturday. Belle said she and her brother tried to outdo each other in “any sport you could ever think of,” from football games at recess to karate matches in their basement.
Obert’s long journey to Rio began by happenstance. As a freshman at Del Oro, Obert took up water polo to stay in shape for the upcoming basketball season and join his friends on the team. He soon excelled at center, a position where he posted up defenders to score or draw a foul – much like a center in basketball.
“It came pretty easily for me,” Obert said.
At 6-foot-6 and 225 pounds, Obert’s long arms and big hands are advantageous in water polo. But Ryland said Obert’s “passion for physical confrontation” and ballhandling finesse made him stand out.
In high school, Obert also played for Sacramento Water Polo, coached by Bruce Hasty. He played under Hasty as a grayshirt at Sierra College for another year before transferring to Pacific in 2011.
Obert said Pacific coach James Graham helped elevate his game.
“(Graham) was always pushing me to get better, pushing me to get faster and stronger,” Obert said. “He expected me to do things I didn’t think I could do.”
As a junior at Pacific in 2013, Obert helped the Tigers make a historic run in the NCAA Championships. In a semifinal against Stanford, Obert scored with 46 seconds left to give Pacific an 11-10 win at the Cardinal’s pool. Although the Tigers lost to USC in the national championship match, Obert helped his team become a threat to the four dominant men’s water polo programs – Cal, UCLA, USC and Stanford – which have won 42 of 47 NCAA titles.
After joining the U.S. national team in 2013, Obert redshirted his senior year at Pacific in 2014 to train with the team in Huntington Beach and play in tournaments in Kazakhstan and the United Arab Emirates. After his final college season in Stockton, he played in more international tournaments and vied for a spot on the Olympic roster.
On July 18, Obert learned he made the roster for Rio.
“It was an unreal experience, finding out that a lifelong dream was going to come true,” he said.
Obert described the team as close-knit, even though the players’ ages range from the late teens to the late 30s.
“It’s pretty awesome that people who are in different places in life can come together so well,” he said.
As the team’s only Northern Californian, Obert gets ribbed by teammates from the Los Angeles area for supporting the Sacramento Kings. While in Rio, Obert hopes to meet Kings All-Star center and fellow Olympian DeMarcus Cousins.
In the 2012 Olympics in London, the United States lost in the quarterfinals and failed to medal. This year, the Americans are in Group B of the 12-team tournament and open Saturday against Croatia. Serbia, the bronze medalist in 2012, is the heavy favorite to win the gold medal. The final is Aug. 20.
Las Vegas oddsmakers peg the U.S. team at 20-1, but Obert believes the Americans can claim their first official men’s water polo gold medal. The United States won the gold in St. Louis in 1904, when men’s water polo was a demonstration sport.
“I don’t want to go (to Rio) just to go there,” Obert said. “I want to go there to win.”