Greg Mescall, Director of Communications, USA Water Polo (USA)

The 2016 Olympic Games had no shortage of remarkable stories, but one that may have been missed given its finish far from the podium took place in water polo. It was one of those classic underdog stories of an athlete overlooked and undervalued. It's the story of USA Water Polo's Alex Obert.

There is a typical journey US Olympic water polo players tend to follow: hail from a water polo-rich area like Orange County or somewhere within shouting distance of Berkeley and Palo Alto. Start at a young age and work your way up through the pipeline. From Cadet to Youth to Junior to Senior - all while dominating on your club team and becoming known on the high school circuit.
That was largely the reality for 12 of the 13 athletes representing Team USA in men's water polo at the Games in Rio de Janeiro.
But the one outlier was Obert.
He plants a flag for all the kids who aren't big enough or fast enough, who got cut or never got recruited, who were too small for their favourite sport - and then too green for their new sport.
Jefferson Airplane sang decades ago about finding somebody to love. Alex Obert spent years finding somebody to love… his water polo game.

"I'm too competitive to sit on the bench"

A basketball player growing up, the now 6-foot 6-inch (1.98m)/225-pound (102kg) Obert was too small for the hoops squad as a high school freshman at Del Oro High School in Loomis, California, a suburb of Sacramento. A competent swimmer, he ditched the bench on the basketball court for a new challenge: water polo. Obert picked it up quickly, but nobody was all that interested in picking him up.

"I was a post player in basketball, a late bloomer," he remembers. "I got to high school, and everyone else grew, and I hadn't grown yet. Then I got good at water polo in my freshman year. I picked it up super quickly. My sophomore year I'm too competitive to sit on the bench, so I gave up hoops and volleyball and decided to focus on water polo."

But even with a focus on water polo, he could forget the national team pipeline. This guy couldn't even get out of his own zone. Headed into his senior year of high school, Obert failed to make the Central California Zone team. All that would have done is bubbled him up one more layer in the pipeline to compete with athletes representing - at the time - 10 other zones from USA Water Polo.

That's right. A guy who would be an Olympian couldn't crack the top 100 athletes in the country six years earlier.

Without Team USA, Obert focused on playing in college, but the offers were between slim and none. The relatively local Cal Bears - rich on history and loaded with talent - told the Sacramento Water Polo Club alumnus he'd be welcome to try out, provided he could get into the school. Not exactly the welcome wagon.

Eventually a couple of teams started to come around, including UC Davis and University of the Pacific (UOP). Obert settled on Pacific, and the coaching staff there devised a plan with their new signee. In an effort to grow up both physically and mentally, Obert took a greyshirt year (a college athlete who delays enrolment for a portion of the academic year) at Sierra College in 2010. There he got his grades in good standing, competed on the swim team and took three classes - math, English and water polo. To preserve his clock in water polo - the number of years a player can compete collegiately - Obert stayed off the junior college's team but was a model student in the water polo classroom.

"Luckily my club coach was the college coach," Obert recalls. "He welcomed me even though the coach doesn't get anything out of me going there. All you can do is train with the team, so I was with the scout team the whole time."

Then it was on to Pacific.

"Days into his arrival, we knew he was special"

In the movies, Rod Tidwell had Jerry Maguire. And in college water polo, Alex Obert's 'Ambassador of Quan' was James Graham, minus the money. Few player-coach duos were meant for each other like these two. Both products of the junior college system, Obert and Graham brought analytic minds to water polo. The two first connected at the old Camp of Champions run by late national team coaches Monte Nitzkowski and Ken Lindgren. Graham kept an eye on Obert for the next few years, periodically getting reports from friends in Obert's area until it became clear he would be somebody who'd fit nicely in Stockton, CA, which is home to Pacific.

While most coaches crunched numbers on six-on-five and offered plus/minus stats as a way of advanced metrics on their athletes, Graham began taking things to the next level. Labelled a sort of Billy Beane, 'Moneyball' type within water polo, Graham began unearthing the guys everybody else looked past, sprinkled in with European talents who could compete at the highest level.
After Obert's freshman year at Pacific, where he was used in every position but goalie, Graham went all in on the analytics-driven model in 2012. He knew very early on he had someone special in Obert.

"Days into his arrival, we knew he was special," Graham remembers. "For being a player who came from a small high school and without much big-game experience, he was able to play centre against the top centre defenders. For a guy that young to be able to do those things with his experience just showed his natural gift. We didn't have to always teach him things. We tried to help educate him on the game rather than always spending time on developing technique."

Graham had a highly motivated pupil in Obert, who had put together a mental list of who'd be on the receiving end of his furious play - and Pac-12 schools were heavily represented.

"It was a huge motivator, every time I put on the cap against the Pac-12, I made sure to remind them that none of them even gave me a talking to," Obert recalls. "I wanted to prove it to those four [California, Stanford, UCLA and USC] and honestly everyone."

Alongside a Hungarian, a Croat and an Israeli, Graham slid in the kids from Reno and Miami and Loomis. He tweaked his schedule, pulling out of early non-conference tournaments with top-10 talent because it did nothing to improve his endgame: the post-season. Plus, the lack of depth on his team in comparison with the title contenders meant one game in one weekend against the best was a better scenario for the Tigers.

"I was an engineering school major," Obert remembers. "So when James would give his presentation on water polo, I was the liaison. It made super sense to me."


"He has the winning spirit"

In 2012, Obert had his breakout moment. While Graham was redshirting (a delay or suspension of an athlete's participation to lengthen his or her period of eligibility) big man Goran Tomasevic, it gave others on the team a chance to shine. Hungarian standout Balazs Erdelyi, who would go on to win two Cutino Awards, was the primary focus - but Obert, then a sophomore, started to make an impact. Graham remembers a meeting with then fourth-ranked California at the SoCal Tournament. Obert scored five goals, including the game winner in overtime to give Pacific a 10-9 victory.

The year in the spotlight allowed Obert time to be the man in the middle and continue to develop his versatile game. He blossomed into a standout on the college scene, coaches scratched their heads at what they missed in the kid from Del Oro, and it set the stage for a memorable 2013.
Sometimes you only need one person to believe in you, but having two isn't bad.

"The two people I owe the most are James Graham and Dejan Udovicic," Obert says. "James took a chance on me when I was a high school kid and Dejan took a chance on me as a sophomore in college."

In 2013, Udovicic took over Team USA fresh off guiding the Serbian national team in a lengthy run that included two Olympic medals and a FINA World Championship title. And he saw something in Obert that previous national team coaches hadn't.

"Each coach has a different reason for selecting players. I saw something in him that he could play at a very high level. He proved that to me," Udovicic says. "I think this kid is a unique player. He can play different positions at a high level, and that's the most important thing. He has strength as a centre, centre defender, left side, and he has the winning spirit."

That first summer Obert made his first FINA World Championship team and he hasn't missed a major event since.

"I've just become more comfortable"

That fall Obert returned to Pacific with more momentum than ever and was a key piece of a restocked Pacific team, which advanced all the way to the NCAA final before falling to USC in overtime. The following year Graham tried to recapture lightning in a bottle by redshirting Obert and loading up for 2015. The team fell short of recapturing the magic from two seasons earlier but Obert continued to develop with the national team, and the Olympic Games started to come into focus. It was an accelerated journey from where Obert had been.

"I tried out for the Central California Zone, the summer going into my senior year," Obert remembers. "I made the training team but got cut from the travel team. Not one of the best in the Central California zone. Never made a Junior National Team. I was a basketball player who tried to play water polo. Dejan got hired, he was the guy who gave me a shot with Team USA. I haven't really missed a tournament since, and it was really Dejan looking at me and seeing my skills a little differently."

Turns out 2016 was a dream come true for Obert-as well as a humbling experience.

"Becoming an Olympian was in my mind in high school," he recalls. "I'm (eventually) going to have the size, and I picked up swimming super naturally. I knew I had the physical ability; I just needed the time to catch up to everyone, and it really made me focus and reevaluate."
Obert adds with a laugh that "the zone coach comes up and apologises sometimes".

"It was a huge milestone for everyone, a huge sense of pride," Graham says. "It's a great story. It's one of those stories you enjoy hearing about in the Olympics - the player who came from humble beginnings, maybe overlooked, then through his own determination takes an unlikely route to the top. It makes us feel very proud we were a part of that journey. I know Alex was extremely proud to represent UOP at the Olympics."

Says Obert: "I'll never forget Rio or the nine months I spent with those guys before - just the actual experience."

While the USA team failed to advance from group play in Rio, finishing in 10th place, just making the Olympic team completed the redemption tour for Obert.

And then just a year later in Budapest, Obert was team captain at the FINA World Championships. With the retirement of five-times Olympian Tony Azevedo - among others - Obert is now a veteran on what remains one of the youngest teams in the world.

There have been highs and lows with Team USA the last four years. Gold at the 2015 Pan American Games, silver at the 2016 FINA World League Super Final - and coupled with off-the-podium finishes in Rio and Budapest.
With the next Olympic Games less than three years away, Obert, who turned 26 in December, is someone Udovicic will lean on to help this group mature and gel further in time for Tokyo. With his place on the team secure and no longer just having to prove he belongs, Obert has settled in to his spot with Team USA.

"I've just become more comfortable," he says. "In 2013 I was a little shocked I was there. I've just gotten more confident. I want to be a better leader - I can improve my leadership skills."

His supporters in Graham and Udovicic don't disagree and see even greater heights on the horizon.

"He's growing each year. He can improve in the centre position, in his shooting, on the post and on man-up," Udovicic says. "But I think that right now he has reached a stage where he's among the other high-level players in the world."

"In my mind I still think Obert has another level," Graham predicts. "I saw it during his time here at Pacific. The more comfortable and more knowledgeable he got inside the system and the league, the better he became and the more he flourished. That last year was his first quad-a young team and a young player with a lot to learn. He's becoming a veteran player now, and I think he could be one of the top players for the United States."

By the time 2020 rolls around everyone will know about Obert in the world of water polo. But he won't stop competing to show he belongs - and to prove right the two high-level coaches who took a chance on him.

"I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for them," Obert says of Graham and Udovicic. "I'll be forever indebted to them."