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Her Goal: Water-Polo Gold in Sydney

Bernice Orwig lives and breathes the sport that she started playing on coed teams at Savanna High School. Her team, 5 others debut the women's event.

September 06, 2000|JUDY SILBER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For the past year, Anaheim native Bernice Orwig has had one goal in mind: winning an Olympic medal.

Together with her teammates, Orwig--the goalie for the U.S. women's water polo team--has spent at least six hours a day working out. In the pool and on land, they practiced. They ran, swam, lifted weights, tackled obstacle courses and survived drills at the Los Alamitos Armed Forces Reserve Center's swimming facility. The grueling schedule left little time and energy for anything else except sleeping and eating.

A last-second save by Orwig in an April qualifying game against Hungary helped secure the team a chance to go for the gold.

With the U.S. team up by one point, 28 seconds remained when a Hungarian in front of the goal got the ball. She threw it. The 6-foot-tall Orwig jumped up to meet it. The ball ricocheted off her right shoulder into a teammate's hands.

Thanks to the win, the U.S. team is one of six to debut women's water polo at this year's Olympics in Sydney, Australia. Water-polo players hope to bring home the gold just as the U.S. women's soccer, ice-hockey and softball teams did during their Olympic debuts.

Orwig won't really even consider the alternative to winning. But she downplays her excitement and remains focused on the final goal. The team left for Sydney on Monday night, but they still have eight days of practice, then a round robin where they'll play all five teams to see who makes it to the semifinal matches, Orwig said.

"I'm excited, but not more than any other trip," she said.

Her even temper prior to the Olympics is typical, her friends said. Kathy Wagner said she's never seen Orwig frustrated or angry. Wagner is the choir director of First Presbyterian Church in Anaheim, where Orwig has sung since elementary school.

"If she runs into a barrier, she figures out a way to get past it," Wagner said.

"It's mental toughness," high school friend Suzanne Hughes said. Making it to the Olympics would have satisfied most people, she said. "Bernie, it didn't even phase her."

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The ability to stay focused despite the hoopla surrounding the Olympics separates the Olympians from everyone else, Hughes said. "It's the difference between an athlete and a champion."

Orwig started her water-polo career casually. She was an avid basketball, softball and volleyball player, but her mother encouraged her to try swimming, a noncontact sport during her freshman year at Savanna High School.

Once she began swimming, Orwig was recruited for water polo. She fell in love with the sport.

At Savanna, Orwig played on coed teams because no team was exclusively for girls. She couldn't match the boys' strength and size, but that only made her more aggressive and determined.

By her sophomore year, Orwig was playing goalie for the boys' varsity team.

"She was 14 years old in the goal, playing against 17--year--old boys. But she wasn't afraid at all," said Hughes, who also played water polo for Savanna.

Orwig quit the sport temporarily after high school, but during her last semester at Cypress College, she was back in the pool. While playing for the men's varsity team, she attracted the attention of USC women's water-polo coach Jovan Vavic. He offered her a scholarship and promised her a championship by her senior year.

USC did, indeed, win the national title during Orwig's senior year in 1999. That spring, Orwig also made the Olympic team.

Even if Orwig has remained calm about going to Sydney, those who know her can't contain their excitement.

"I want her to bring back the gold," Wagner said. "If she doesn't, I'll still love her. But I have a feeling that she will."

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Judy Silber can be reached at (714) 966-5988.

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