When the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (postponed one year) start on July 23, 2021, the eyes of the nation will be locked on the hundreds of athletes that will be representing the United States as they go for gold in their respective sports and events.
For those in Coronado, our eyes should be glued to our television sets when USA Water Polo games are on. Why you may ask? Because Team USA’s Captain is Coronado local Jesse Smith. For the 2001 Coronado High School graduate Smith, going to the Olympic games has become familiar waters at this point as these Olympic Games will be his fifth (’04 Athens, ’08 Beijing, ’12 London, ’16 Rio De Janeiro, ’20 Tokyo).
In reflection of his journey to his fifth Olympics, Smith pointed out just how important Coronado and CHS water polo had been to his development as a player. “Playing in a program that is as strong as Coronado’s was huge for me. I was always going up against the best. Plus the support from the community my entire career has been awesome. To always have support from Coronado has been huge. I hope that I can provide a path for others look to.”
With his fifth Olympics appearance at Tokyo, Smith will tie former teammate Tony Azevedo (2000-2016) for the USA Water Polo record for most Olympic Games played at five. “Coming back for my fifth games was never a question,” said Smith. “My water polo journey has been so winding and fun, and opportunities like this only come around so often that when I’m presented with the chance to represent the country I love I had to go for it.”
I asked Jesse if he had felt any nerves going into these games, to which he admitted he had some, but in a good way. “I think any nerves I have at this point are purely from excitement and my desire to get into the pool and play. I know how important and rare moments like this are and I just want to go out there, be at the top of my game and help this team bring home a medal.”
For years now Smith has drawn acclaim as one of the sport’s most naturally gifted athletes and top defenders. And because of his skill, ability in the water, and this now being his fifth Olympic games Smith will take on an even larger role in these Tokyo games as he was named Captain of the USA Olympic Water Polo team.
“I’ve been captain of the team since 2017, but being named the captain of the Olympic team is a huge honor. I’ve been with the team for a long time now so I like taking on the responsibility and the leadership role that comes with it. I’m a leader through communication and I want to make sure everyone is always involved and voicing their opinion. We as a team have a clear vision so I do my best to make sure we are following that.” Smith’s role and importance as captain is even more considerable when you look at the roster for the Men’s Olympic team.
The USA squad will only include four returners from the games in Rio in Alex Bowen, Luca Cupido, Ben Hallock, and Alex Obert. The rest of the squad will be making their Olympic debuts. I asked Jesse with a team as young as the ’20 Olympic squad, what would his expectations be heading into these games, his response? “Bring back the gold. I know we have some tough opponents in our group like Italy, but I think this is an extremely talented and skilled team. We know the task at hand. Our expectations are to go in and bring back gold. I love this group of guys and think we have a real shot to do something special in Tokyo. We just have to go out there and control what we can control and play our game. ” And frankly, no one would know better than Smith when it comes to bringing home Olympic glory, as he was a major factor in helping the United States bring home the Silver Medal in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
Doing something for 18 years, no matter what profession, is always impressive. But to be able to be a dominant professional athlete for 18 years is almost unthinkable. When I asked Jesse if he could go back and tell or give 18-year-old self any advice, he paused for a moment. After a brief look back he said, “I would just tell him all the hard work is worth it. And everything that you put in will be worth it.”
The 2020 Tokyo games may very well be Jesse’s final game. If that is true it will put a bow on what is undoubtedly one of the most storied and dominant careers in USA water Polo history.