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U.S. women's water polo has right formula to win long-awaited gold


LONDON -- If the definition of athletic success is finishing a competition with a win, then the U.S. women's water polo team would have had one only successful Olympics: Athens in 2004.

But that was when they finished third and took the bronze medal, their lowest finish ever.

In the other two Olympic water polo competitions -- in the inaugural tournament in 2000 and in Beijing in 2008 -- the U.S. team won silver, which means taking the medal podium while still suffering the pain of a heartbreaking loss.

"It's weird because the bronze medalists just won a game, and you just lost," said Brenda Villa, who has been on every U.S. Olympic team. "But then you get up on the podium, you hold your teammates' hands, and you see your flag being raised. And you think, 'This is unbelievable.' Yes, there are moments where you think you failed, but there's so much more to it.

"But do we want to be on top? Yes. Do we use it as motivation? Of course."

This year, the U.S. women's water polo team is determined to finish with a victory in the gold medal game. They are considered the favorites coming into the tournament, and the team believes that now -- in its fourth Olympic iteration -- it has the right formula to win gold.

Villa and teammate Heather Petri, both four-time Olympians, lead the U.S. team into competition against Hungary on Monday. They are the "grandmas," in the words of head coach Adam Krikorian, who took over the team in 2009. But more than half of the team is newcomers, including 19-year-old Maggie Steffens, who will start her freshman year at Stanford in the fall and joins her older sister Jessica on the roster.

"I think we have the right combination," Villa said. "We have a new coach, a great mix of girls from rookies to grandmas. We have all the tools."

Krikorian, the former men's and women's coach at UCLA, took over from Guy Baker, who had been the only women's Olympic coach. There were some growing pains, while the new team chemistry was established, but Krikorian infused the team with a new energy and philosophy and with him the team has won six of the seven major championships it's played in.

Now they are going for the ultimate gold medal.

The polo players love it when the Olympic spotlight shines on their sport. At every games, the sport captures the public's imagination for its combination of grace and toughness, and the athletes are happy to expound on that.

"It's physical, but what make our sport so different is it's such a unique medium," Petri said. "We're in the pool with nothing to push against us. We have to maintain our level in the water, we're moving and jumping and wrestling all without the normal base that you guys have."

The women's tournament includes just eight teams, which all advance to the quarterfinals. Though the first games can be anticlimactic, with so little at stake, the players insist they aren't peeking ahead.

"We can't forget how hard it is to get to that final game," Petri said.

Or how hard it is to win it.