The U.S. women's water polo team went silver, bronze, silver in the last three Olympics, but it's been nothing but golden in the run up to 2012.
The world No. 1s won the FINA World League Super Final over Italy 9-7 on Sunday in China. In water polo, there are four major tournaments: the Olympics, the world championships, the World League Super Final and the World Cup.
The Americans won the last two world championships (2007, 2009), the last three World League Super Final titles (2009, 2010, 2011) and the last World Cup (2010).
No doubt they're favorites to claim another world championship next month in China, but their sparkling resume won't be complete without an Olympic gold. "For us to say that's not the goal is kind of avoiding the elephant in the room," coach Adam Krikorian said.
USA Water Polo hopes Krikorian is the man to deliver the elusive Olympic crown. He guided UCLA to seven NCAA titles in a 10-year stretch before replacing Guy Baker as the U.S. coach in 2009.
Baker had been in charge since women's water polo was added to the Olympic program in 2000 and left the post to take a job in the USA Water Polo Olympic development program.
The transition was smooth. Krikorian had been an assistant under Baker at UCLA in the 1990s and brought a similar coaching style. But Krikorian wasn't averse to change. Captain Brenda Villa, a three-time Olympian, remembered one of his first addresses to the team in 2009. "Everyone here has to earn their spot," she recalled Krikorian saying. "It doesn't matter if you've been here before. No one has a foot in the door."
At the time, 11 of the 13 members of the 2008 Olympic roster were active. The recent World League Super Final team however, included seven non-Olympians. No Americans were among the top 10 overall scorers, but 12 of 13 had at least two goals. Goalkeeper Betsey Armstrong earned all-tournament honors.
"We have a lot of players that are very versatile and can play different roles," Villa said. "It's harder for teams to scout us."
Villa also credited improved fitness and Krikorian's training regimen, which included a day with Navy SEAL on a California beach in February, climbing over walls, under barbed wire and through obstacle courses.
"That was crazy," Villa said. "I don't think any of us would do that experience again, but we're glad we did it and survived."
The USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships begin Thursday in Eugene, Ore., and almost everybody there will be vying to secure a spot at the world championships (Aug. 27-Sept. 4 in Daegu, South Korea).
A minority in Eugene can breathe easy, as their tickets are already punched. Reigning world champions receive automatic entry into worlds. However, a USA Track and Field rule stipulates that reigning world champions must enter an event -- not necessarily their championship event -- this week to collect those tickets to Daegu. This keeps U.S. stars from skipping the meet but can also make for oddities like Kerron Clement, the 400-meter hurdles world champion who is entered in the 200 meters.
More curious are the unique cases of Americans LaShawn Merritt (detailed by the Chicago Tribunehere) and Muna Lee. Merritt won't compete in Eugene, but he might end up on the world championship team.
Lee, a slender two-time Olympian, will be in Eugene, agent Chris Layne said, but she's been scratched from her events, the 100 and 200 meters, as she failed to achieve qualifying times. At her best, Lee was fifth in the 100 at the 2008 Olympics and fourth in the 200 at the 2009 world championships. But she left those world championships on a stretcher, pulling up with a hamstring injury and eliminating the U.S. in the heats of the 4x100-meter relay.
Lee reaggravated it in early 2010 and, forced to miss significant time, she went back to school at LSU last summer, aiming to complete her degree by May 2011.
Lee is still one class short of graduating, but she dipped her feet back in competition this year. She entered the 100 at the Adidas Grand Prix in New York on June 11, needing to clock 11.42 seconds to qualify for nationals. Lee was well off the pace, running a last-place 11.98 in poor weather.
Lee's Twitter indicated she's still traveling to Eugene, hoping USA Track and Field will let her into the meet. Her agent was not optimistic, but it wouldn't be unprecedented; athletes coming off injury or pregnancy (like distance runner Kara Goucher this year) have been added without qualifying times if they appear to have a chance at making the world championship team.
Lee could claim she's returning from injury, but that recent 11.98 might not help her case.
America's best female gymnasts will gather at the famed Karolyi ranch in Texas next week, where national team coordinator Martha Karolyi will scrutinize candidates for this year's world championship team.
Karolyi expects the group to include 2008 Olympians Shawn Johnson, Alicia Sacramone and Bridget Sloan, who are at different stages in quests to become the first U.S. women to make back-to-back Olympic gymnastics teams since 2000.
Johnson, 19, has not competed since Beijing, but she was added to the national team in February in advance of suiting up this summer. Sacramone, 23, took one year off and returned to win the vault title at last year's world championships. Sloan, 18, won the world all-around title in 2009 but was unable to defend in 2010 due to injuries. She signed with the University of Florida in April but deferred enrollment until after the 2012 Olympics.
Karolyi will select her six-member team for October's world championships after the U.S. championships in August, but an early glimpse could come at Chicago's CoverGirl Classic (July 22-24), where U.S. champion Rebecca Bross is slated to make her 2011 debut after recovering from ankle surgery.