TOKYO — The U.S. women’s water polo team only added to its long-held, still-growing, first-world problem here on Saturday. To be clear, at the Olympics, there’s no better problem to be claimed. Nonetheless, the issue lingers: they make winning everything from gold medals to dominating for years on end look so easy that most who happen upon their dominance forget that what might look simple is most definitely not.
Just ask Natalie Benson (née Golda), a member of the USA Water Polo Hall of Fame, owner of an Olympic bronze (2004) and a silver (’08) medal and now the coach at Fresno State. “They absolutely make it look easy, but this team is special,” she says, before launching into why. The list, in full: they’re deep, athletic, fit, smart, focused, explosive; they feature superb swimmers, versatile players and long-armed ones and even better shooters; they boast a wealth of talent and experience, especially at the Olympics; they practice together year-round.
Special more or less covers it. “Like even for me, somebody who has been there before, I couldn’t do anything remotely close to what they’re doing now,” Benson says.
These players also, unlike Benson, grew up training in a world where water polo was an Olympic sport—and American greatness was an expectation. They knew it debuted at the Games in 2000, and that U.S. team went silver-bronze-silver, before it basically stopped losing. “This is the legacy they picked up and chose to follow,” says Benson.
All of it continued on Saturday at the Tatsumi Water Polo Centre, from the good problem to the sustained excellence that created, sustained and exacerbated it. Before the U.S. team hopped in the pool, they knew the history at stake, particularly because anyone who pops by to ask about their superiority cannot let them forget. They were gunning for a third-consecutive Olympic medal, a water polo three-peat having not lost even one game in the Games since the final in 2008.
They’ve also captured the last three world championships, the last three World Cups, the last seven World League titles. They’re not a dynasty like various iterations of the Patriots, Yankees, Lakers or any team in sports that could be named. They’re the sports equivalent of the Imperial House of Japan, the longest surviving dynasty in the world.
Still, it would be a mistake to think that even dynasties are not tested. This Olympic tournament reinforced what the U.S. players already knew. To seize another gold, they would have to fight for it.
There was captain Maggie Steffens, the Michael Jordan of women’s water polo, catching an elbow to the face against China in pool play. The force of the contact broke her nose and resulted in a shiner on her left eye, but it didn’t even remove her from that game for long. She hopped back in the pool and scored while blood dripped from her nose into the water. Thankfully, the only sharks in that pool were her teammates.
There was her team, its record 130-3 since that loss in the gold-medal match-up in Beijing, having not dropped an Olympic contest in 13 years. At least until the U.S. squared off here against Hungary in pool play, stumbling, 10-9, streak snapped. Asked afterward if this marked a positive development in an odd way, because it lessened their collective stress to not have to carry The Streak into every competition, they shrugged. Best guess: maybe. It would depend on their response.
They did advance to the knockout round, behind versatile stars like Steffens and Maddie Musselman and Alys Williams, plus goalkeeper Ashleigh Johnson, who reinforced her status as the world’s best shot-stopper in the pool. They did win their quarterfinal, advancing to play the team from Russia in the semis—the same one they bludgeoned 18-5 the last time the two teams met. Only the team from Russia went up, 6-3, and they were backed by a crowd—their journalists, who screamed and clapped and chanted. The ROC had deployed essentially the water polo equivalent of the 2-3 zone in basketball, dropping defenders back near its goal, packing them together and presenting the U.S. scorers with a forest of arms and little in way of openings.
The U.S. team needed to gather itself at halftime. No one panicked. Well, maybe their coach, Adam Krikorian, but he only sounded internal alarms. He joked later that a line from the movie Old School kept running through his head. We’ve got to just keep our composure! But he simply told his players, keep doing what you’re doing, remaining outwardly composed himself.
“We all took a deep breath at halftime,” Musselman said, like it was that easy. Again, it wasn’t.
At the start of the third quarter, the empty arena echoed with the cheers from the U.S. players, who regularly play without crowds and create their own energy with the well-worn vocal cords of reserves. Their voices sounded urgent. They knew what was at stake, even down to the color: gold.
Between the “sandbagging” tactic that Krikorian believes the team from Russia used in that earlier meeting and the 2-3 water forest, the U.S. had been thrown off guard. The solution was two-fold: listen to the advice from Old School, and, much like a team defeats a zone in basketball, get the ball inside, for lay-ups or kick outs to more open shooters. Musselman scored four of the U.S.’s nine goals in the second half, as the Americans cruised back to the usual place in an unusual manner: bloodied, beaten and forced to come back from a rare loss and another halftime deficit.
This forced the U.S. players into an unfair position. They had to basically defend a win, their play this tournament and their gold chances. Steffens noted, fairly, that her team had learned from the global pandemic, that nothing is guaranteed but that there remains plenty to overcome. And overcome, they had. “We’re fighters,” she said.
Again, this is a team that makes Alabama look like the Jets, that had lost two Olympic contests in 13 years. Even knockout artists have to show up and knock somebody out. Spain also beat Hungary that day, ending the possibility of a rematch in the championship game with the team that had edged the U.S. in pool play. Musselman said the U.S. players would probably “celebrate for one meal,” then turn their collective attention to the only game that mattered.
That contest, for the gold medal, unfolded in typical fashion for the U.S. juggernaut. That is to say it was a bloodbath. Williams scored 27 seconds in. The Americans led 4-1 after the first quarter and 7-4 at the half, then dominated the final two periods, allowing only one goal and ballooning their advantage. Ultimately, the scoreboard read: 14-5. But it felt like 1,000,000-5. It was that lopsided, over that early. With five minutes left in the fourth quarter, television cameras showed one of Spain’s players crying on the bench.
As the final seconds ticked away, a three-peat assured, the U.S. players did not celebrate. For a brief minute, it seemed like they found the whole routine—show up, dominate, add new medal to already-heavy collections—very, well, routine. But that minute was misleading. When the horn sounded, they leapt up, clapped, jumped up and down. Of course it wasn’t easy. Never had been. Probably never will be.
Benson, the alum, watched from afar. She knew this wasn’t like the U.S. basketball teams, which got together near the Olympics, went out and dominated based on superior talent. The U.S. women had that but not only that. Their team worked day after day, for years, doing the same thing to achieve the same result. “They have a standard of how they play,” Benson said, “and they just keep meeting it.”
Several team members jumped in the pool, swimming to their teammates for the water polo equivalent of a celebratory dog pile. Several others motioned for Krikorian to remove his cell phone from his pocket. Then they tossed him in the pool, fully clothed, still wearing shoes, a superior version of a Gatorade bath, with electrolytes replaced by chlorine.
A reporter asked him later: Is this getting old yet? “No,” Krikorian answered. “It’s getting more tiring; I’ll tell you that.” He made a joke about his age playing a factor in the fatigue. “It never gets old, though,” he added.
Of course it meant something. In fact, it meant everything. Always does. Probably always will.
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