The brutality of water polo is played out largely beneath the
surface of the water, where the grabbing, clawing and general
mayhem that takes place makes WWF Smackdown! look genteel. The
women's Olympic competition wasn't exactly a tea party above the
waterline, either, as U.S. center-forward Heather Moody found out
when she took an accidental kick to the face in a semifinal match
against the Netherlands last Friday and left blood in the pool as
she made her way to the deck.
That blow, however, was nothing compared to the one the Americans
suffered in the next night's gold medal game, which ended in
confusion and controversy over a last-second goal that gave
Australia a 4-3 victory and left the U.S. players stunned silver
medalists. After America's Julie Swail fouled Australia's Yvette
Higgins with 1.3 seconds to play, Higgins fired in the winning
score to the delight of the raucous Aussie fans in the nearly
full Aquatic Centre.
While the celebration raged around them, the disbelieving
Americans bobbed in the water like corks for several minutes,
hoping the goal would be disallowed. Under the impression that
the foul had occurred less than seven meters from the net, the
U.S. thought Higgins's shot was illegal because from inside that
distance, Australia would have had to make at least one pass
before taking a shot. An official from FINA, the sport's
international governing body, issued a statement following the
game saying that the foul occurred outside seven meters, which
meant that Higgins could take a direct shot on goal. Even if that
was the case, Higgins appeared to wave the ball above her head
briefly before she shot, and the rules state that the shooting
motion in that situation must be instant and uninterrupted.
"I don't want to get into the fact that it was a bad call," said
U.S. center-forward Maureen O'Toole. "Both teams played great,
and it was a classic, historic night for women's water polo."
On that point there could be no dispute. Women's water polo was
making its debut as a medal sport exactly 100 years after the
men's version was first played in the Olympics. Players from the
U.S. and Australia had been part of the lobbying that had been
going on for decades in an attempt to change the attitude of the
IOC, which finally conferred Olympic status on the sport in 1997.
Several Aussie players had met IOC president Juan Antonio
Samaranch's plane at the Sydney airport in '95 wearing swimsuits
and holding signs of protest. "At one point the IOC even said
that men's water polo already had a sister sport--synchronized
swimming," says O'Toole. "Nothing against synchro, but I mean,
Perhaps it was the feeling of sisterhood created by that campaign
that accounted for how gracious the Americans and the Australians
were to one another after the final. The Americans refused to
complain about the final call, and in the joint postgame press
conference the Australian team twice applauded O'Toole, the
39-year-old icon of the sport who had played the final game of
her career. "She's a living legend," Higgins said.
O'Toole will now return to the life she had before turning it
upside down three years ago when she was coaching water polo at
Cal, came out of retirement and moved from northern California to
train with the team in Los Angeles. She flew back to the Bay Area
on Fridays to spend the weekends with her daughter, Kelly, 8, who
lived with O'Toole's parents. "I'm disappointed, but getting back
to being a mom and having a normal schedule is a huge
consolation," she said after the game, the silver medal dangling
from her neck.
Two seats from O'Toole at the press conference, U.S. goalkeeper
Bernice Orwig was having difficulty keeping an equally stiff
upper lip. Her eyes were red and moist, and when she tried to
answer a question, her voice quavered before she finally gave up,
unable to speak. Still, she had a slight smile on her face. It
was as if Orwig realized that even this heartache was part of the
Olympic experience she and so many other women had fought for.
They had left their blood in the water, and there was no disgrace
in leaving their tears.
experience she had fought for.