The Yugoslav water polo players romped in the Olympic Indoor Swimming Pool Saturday night; some were even swigging from bottles of champagne. They had just defeated the U.S. 9-7 in the first overtime game in Olympic water polo history, a titanic battle that crushed the American team's longstanding dream of an Olympic gold medal. Even as the victors celebrated, the U.S. players slipped quietly out of the water, their heads down. They looked shell-shocked.
With good reason. For four years the Americans had been haunted by the memory of the 1984 gold medal game against Yugoslavia, in which the U.S. jumped to a 5-2 lead and then turned cautious, allowing the Yugoslavs to pull out a 5-5 tie and win the gold medal on goal differential. "It was pretty bitter," said U.S. goalie Craig Wilson last week. "We knew we were the better team."
Five U.S. players, including Wilson and stars Terry Schroeder and Jody Campbell, had decided to stick it out for one more crack at gold. Since May they and their teammates had been in full-time training in Southern California. "We're here for a gold medal—nothing less," said Wilson before the final.
For the first two seven-minute quarters on Saturday, the Americans' defense was stifling, and they shot like marksmen. Early in the third period they increased their 4-2 halftime lead to 5-2—just as they had in '84. The game was beginning to look eerily familiar.
Yugoslavia roared back with four unanswered power-play goals to move ahead 6-5 in the final period. The big Yugoslavs—eight of their 13 players stand 6'5" or taller—were pummeling the smaller Americans. Campbell tied the game at 6-6 with 2:12 left, but the U.S. was clearly showing the effects of its emotionally draining semifinal 8-7 win over the Soviets 24 hours earlier. It failed to score on its last six opportunities in regulation play and was fortunate that a point-blank shot by 6'9" Tomislav Paskavalin with :03 remaining hit the frame of the goal and bounced away.
Because of a rule change precipitated, in part, by the '84 U.S.-Yugoslavia tie, two three-minute overtime periods would be played, with sudden death to follow, if needed. As Schroeder said later, "We had every opportunity to win."
In one sense, that was true, but in another sense, the Yugoslavs made sure it wasn't. They controlled the ball for the opening 1½ minutes of the first OT before Perica Bukic, one of six returnees from the 1984 gold medal team, fired in a goal with the U.S. down a man. With :06 left in the period, Veselin Djuho. another '84 veteran, hit the crossbar with a shot that somehow angled downward into the U.S. cage. Yugoslavia now led 8-6.
Igor Milanovic, Yugoslavia's star two-meter man, iced the game with a goal in the second overtime. "I said in '84 that I wished there was overtime because that had to be easier than losing the gold medal because of a tie," said Schroeder afterward. "I can tell you now, it's not any easier."
The Yugoslavs were gracious. "I think difference between U.S. and Yugoslavia team is very little," said Milanovic. "This time we were slightly better. Next time they may be slightly better. We were more lucky this night." Sadly for the U.S. team, this night was the one that counted.