Arguably, no team has been as close to Olympic gold over the past 12 years without actually winning it as the U.S. women's water polo team. In the three Olympic Games that have included women's water polo, the U.S. has one bronze and a pair of silvers, both after one-goal defeats in the final game.
However, last week's performance gives hope that this year will be different; the U.S. women went undefeated to win the Holiday Cup in Los Alamitos, Calif. on Feb. 19. The team knocked off world champion Greece and European champion Italy during the week, and topped Canada 11-8 to win the final game.
Despite high-level opposition, it was a bit of an experimental tournament for the U.S. squad -- which still needs to trim its roster before the summer -- displayed by the team's use of three different goalies in the matches.
U.S. captain Brenda Villa liked most of what she saw during the tournament. "We were able to bounce back after some slow starts," says Villa, referring to how the U.S. overcame a 4-1 deficit in the final game, "but we can't keep falling behind early." The U.S. also rallied to beat Canada at the Pan-Am Games last summer, qualifying for the Olympics with that victory. "We also need to work on our slow starts and we need to work on power-play consistency," says Villa, whose team managed two goals in eight chances with an extra player at the Holiday Cup. "Some games we're at 70 percent, then we're down to 20 percent. We want to be at 50-60 percent. On the plus side, she adds, "We're more versatile than we've been in the past. We played six in, six out. We have a lot of depth now."
These days are especially meaningful for Villa, since the 31-year-old Stanford grad plans to retire after the London Games. She has co-founded an organization called Project 20-20, which brings water polo and swimming to kids in the Bay Area. "I don't know if I'd describe it as unfinished business," she says about this summer, "but there is a different sense of urgency, knowing that six months from now, I'll be going in a different direction and I won't be playing for USA water polo any more. This will come to an end and I'll miss it."
Steven Holcomb's and Steve Langton's victory in Lake Placid last weekend gave the U.S. its first world title in a two-man bobsled event. Holcomb piloted his four-man sled to gold at both the 2009 worlds, also in Lake Placid, and the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. That makes Holcomb and speedskater Shani Davis the only U.S. athletes to bookend a victory at the Vancouver Games with world titles both before and after. Lindsey Vonn? Close. She won silver in the downhill in Garmisch last year.
I caught up with Rowdy Gaines, three-time Olympic gold medalist in swimming and NBC's swimming analyst, at a recent event in New York. Among the athletes Gaines is most looking forward to seeing this summer ... "The big three [Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte and Missy Franklin]," he says. "Michael and Ryan are two dominant swimmers, who come along once in a generation and just happen to be from the same generation.
"I think Missy's going to win seven medals," Gaines predicts. "Things really have to fall into place for her to do that, but I think it's possible. Rarely do you find a young swimmer like her who has everything. She's talented, hard working, well spoken, humble. She's a great team player, who loves the relays. She's got it all."
Gaines also had a chance to work out recently with former Olympic teammate Janet Evans, who is trying to make a comeback at age 40. "She's really cranking it," Gaines says. "I mean it would be great if she could get on the team. [...] I haven't seen it done in distance swimming, but I think it's wrong for people to ask why she's doing this. If you're an athlete in a sport other than, say, boxing, and you want to come out of retirement, more power to you."
By Gaines' estimation, Evans still need to drop a healthy eight to ten seconds off her workout swims; unlike the last time Evans made the Olympic team, when the U.S. did not have as much depth in women's distance racing, Evans will be facing some stiff opposition from the likes of Kate Ziegler and Chloe Sutton just to make the team in the 800 freestyle.
"But you can't discount the fact that when she gets on the blocks, she's a second ahead of everyone," Gaines says. "Even swimmers who are good at focusing on just their lanes have to be thinking, 'That's Janet Evans. I wonder what she'll do.'"
Embarrassed over Rome's sudden withdrawal from the race to host the 2020 Olympics, Italian IOC member and Rome bid chief Mario Pescante resigned this week as IOC vice president, saying he felt shamed by the Italian's government's refusal to back Rome's bid with financial guarantees.
Connecting some dots here, the withdrawal may remove an obstacle to a potential U.S. bid down the road. Had Rome simply not bid several months ago -- joining the race with Tokyo, Baku, Istanbul and Madrid -- it would have had ample chance to do so four years later in hopes of landing the Games in 2024. Now, any Italian bid will come with skepticism about finances.
Mark down Paris as an early favorite for 2024, since that would mark the 100th anniversary of the last Paris Olympics -- remember Chariots of Fire? -- and since the city of light has bid twice recently. Asked when Rome, which last held the Games in 1960, might host the Games again, Pescante, 73, pessimistically suggested 2060.