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UCLA men’s water polo represents Team USA at World University Games

Redshirt senior attacker Jack Larsen, representing the United States, attempts a shot at the World University Games. (Courtesy of Chengdu 2021 Virtual Media Zone)

By Benjamin Royer

Aug. 11, 2023 1:22 p.m.

Representing Team USA at the World University Games gifted the Bruins an opportunity to represent their nation against water polo’s best.

And while a fourth-place finish in Chengdu, China, left the United States off the podium, the experience of competing against international professional players across the last two weeks was a memorable one for UCLA men’s water polo coaches and players alike.

“It was really, for us, a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said coach Adam Wright, who was at the helm of the WUG U.S. squad made up entirely of active Bruins. “We didn’t finish the last game like we would have wanted to, but the experiences and the lessons, both in and out of the pool, will serve us really well moving forward.”

After dropping the first game of the tournament against Italy – which would go on to win the gold medal – the Americans rattled off four consecutive wins to close the group stages.

The U.S. relied on performances from two UCLA veterans to help secure a semifinal berth. Redshirt senior attacker Jack Larsen scored the game-winning goal against Greece with 7:01 left in the match, while senior goalkeeper Garret Griggs held the Greeks scoreless in the final period of the quarterfinals.

Senior goalkeeper Garret Griggs, representing the U.S., makes a save at the World University Games. (Courtesy of Chengdu 2021 Virtual Media Zone)
Senior goalkeeper Garret Griggs, representing the U.S., makes a save at the World University Games. (Courtesy of Chengdu 2021 Virtual Media Zone)

Griggs said the effort shown to keep Greece at bay is a focal point of Wright’s strategy, starting from the bench all the way into the pool.

“It was overall a team effort,” Griggs said. “We really try to focus on defense here at UCLA. Towards the end of the game, everyone’s just tired, and you’ve got to stay focused, stay on course and just stick to your game plan.”

However, in the final two contests, early deficits sunk gold medal dreams.

Hungary led the U.S. 11-5 heading into the fourth quarter of the WUG semifinals. And while Griggs maintained another shutout period to end the game, the Bruins fell by one point.

Freshman utility Ben Liechty led the team with three goals, while Larsen added two of his own in the game. Larsen said the team’s drive to come back is an asset to leverage heading into the Bruins’ regular season’s start in September.

“I really think it just shows the strength of the group,” Larsen said. “I think that’s something to think about moving forward as we head into the season. And just figuring out how we can come out on top with more energy and be ready to go from the first quarter.”

It was more of the same for the Bruins in the bronze medal contest.

A 6-1 deficit against Georgia was too large of a hole to dig out of as Larsen’s three goals made up almost half of the U.S.’s scoring totals in its WUG-ending 12-7 defeat.

Wright said Georgia – and other countries – starred players from European professional leagues, and that despite not medaling, there were only positives to glean from the eight games in a physically competitive atmosphere.

“Our guys are playing guys that are 26, 27 years old,” Wright said. “Everything about it was just a positive experience.”

Outside of in-game action, the UCLA representatives lived in a village with other athletes hailing from different nations and participating in various sports. The Bruins’ excursion to a panda park afforded the student-athletes the chance to see the bear, which is native to China, in person for the first time.

While outside of the village, locals asked for photos while trying to decipher where they were from, Larsen said. He added that he was grateful to have the opportunity to compete in Chengdu.

“It was a privilege, and I will remember it for the rest of my life,” Larsen said.

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Benjamin Royer | Assistant Sports editor
Royer is the 2023-2024 Assistant Sports editor on the baseball, gymnastics and men's water polo beats and a reporter on the football beat. He was previously a staff writer on the baseball, football and gymnastics beats. He is also a fourth-year communication student.
Royer is the 2023-2024 Assistant Sports editor on the baseball, gymnastics and men's water polo beats and a reporter on the football beat. He was previously a staff writer on the baseball, football and gymnastics beats. He is also a fourth-year communication student.
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