- Associated Press - Sunday, May 22, 2016

LOS ANGELES (AP) - Tony Azevedo is a speed boat in a pool full of aircraft carriers. And 16 years after he burst onto the international scene, he remains one of the world’s most dangerous scorers.

What comes next will have to wait. The captain of the U.S. water polo team is going to his native Rio de Janeiro in search of one of the few lines missing from his resume: an Olympic gold medal.

“I’m pretty sure this is my last one,” Azevedo said. “It’s been a long, long road. You know I think of every one as my last, really. You go into it and say, ‘This is it, I’ll never have this opportunity again, take full advantage of it,’ and then reassess my life after.”

Heading to his fifth Olympics - a record for the U.S. program - much has changed for the 34-year-old Azevedo since he scored 13 goals in his Sydney debut in 2000. He has played professionally all over the world while becoming one of the biggest names in water polo, drawing one of the loudest ovations when he was introduced before Sunday’s exhibition against Australia.

Azevedo and his wife, Sara, are expecting their second child, a little sister for 3-year-old Cruz. Because of the Zika virus, which can cause severe birth defects and babies being born with abnormally small heads, she will stay home when Azevedo travels to the Games.

“The risk just is too much so we just decided, hey, she can watch it at home with my sister,” Azevedo said.

Azevedo’s sister, Cassie, also is an accomplished water polo player, starring at Cal State Long Beach before playing professionally in Italy. Their father, Rick, is a former coach for the men’s national team.

Azevedo’s family ties provide a window into how he has been able to thrive in the sport for so long while giving away significant inches and pounds to many of his competitors. He is listed at 6-foot-1, 198 pounds, while many of his teammates on the U.S. national team clear 6-4 and 210 pounds.

“Really in the water you know you’re really only as big as your head,” said Azevedo, who scored a power-play goal in the third period of the United States’ 8-6 loss to the Aussies. “I have a big head, and I use it. Intelligent as well. Definitely I know where to go before the guy knows how to get there, and I train my (butt) off, so I’m quick and strong.”

Maybe quicker and stronger than ever before. Dejan Udovicic, a former coach with the Serbian national team who took over the U.S. program three years ago, thinks Azevedo looks better than ever, and Azevedo himself credits the coach’s emphasis on leg work in training for what he calls “the best shape that I’ll ever be in my life.”

“He was always amazing, but I think this is going to be his best Olympics, too,” U.S. goaltender Merrill Moses said. “He’s got so many different shots now in his repertoire. It’s hard to read what he’s going to do, and he’s just a great leader, a great team captain. … He knows how to win.”

Azevedo helped the U.S. win the FINA Men’s Intercontinental Tournament last weekend in Japan, taking home MVP honors after he scored two goals in a 10-9 victory over Australia in the final. He had 10 goals when the U.S. secured its spot in Rio by winning gold at the Pan American Games last summer in Toronto.

The Olympics have brought out the best in Azevedo, while team success has mostly eluded him. He powered the U.S. to silver in 2008 for its best finish in 20 years, but that was followed by a disappointing eighth place in London four years ago.

If Brazil is his final Olympic stop, it brings his career full circle. He was born in Rio and plays professionally for Sesi in Sao Paulo.

“I absolutely love the country,” said Azevedo, who graduated from Stanford with a degree in international relations. “I think the biggest strength they have is the people. The people are so warm. They’re out to help, out to do anything for the country and for the foreigners and to showcase their country. … The Olympics is going to be a big change for Brazil. It’s going to be a historical moment.”

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Jay Cohen can be reached at https://www.twitter.com/jcohenap

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