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SPORTS EXTRA: SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES

Water Polo

U.S. Men Unlikely to Win a Medal, but Women Are Suddenly Making a Powerful Push to Be Contenders

September 10, 2000|HELENE ELLIOTT

WOMEN

* OVERVIEW--As one of six teams to qualify for the first women's Olympic tournament, the U.S. hopes to follow in the golden footsteps of the 1996 U.S. women's soccer, basketball and softball squads.

But unlike those successful teams, the U.S. water polo team doesn't dominate the competition. In fact, it has traveled a bumpy road to Sydney.

The U.S. won its Olympic berth--the last of two available spots--by defeating Hungary at a qualifying tournament last April in Italy.

Based partly on its late qualification, its prospects of winning a medal at Sydney weren't considered strong, and Coach Guy Baker wondered about the team's capabilities. Those prospects, however, brightened considerably when the women won the Holiday Cup tournament in July at Los Alamitos with a 5-4 victory over a powerful Canadian team.

The U.S. was 6-0 in a field that included the other five Olympic entrants: the Netherlands, Russia, Kazakhstan, Canada and Australia.

Coralie Simmons of the United States was voted the top offensive player after scoring 13 goals, and Nicolle Payne, a surprise starter, was voted top goalkeeper. The Netherlands, ranked first in the world last year, was 2-4. Australia, the tournament favorite, was 4-2.

One reason the U.S. women's hopes skyrocketed was their power play, which was 31 for 50 in the tournament.

The six teams will play a round-robin, after which the top four will advance to the semifinals.

* OTHERS TO WATCH--The Netherlands is the defending world champion and has never failed to win a medal in any of the 17 championships contested in the sport. Ingrid Leijendekker of the Netherlands has been voted the world's best player by World Water Polo magazine each of the last two years.

Host Australia has been gearing up for the Games and has a formidable team that can compete with the physically imposing U.S. team. Australia captain Bridgette Gusterson was voted the world's second-best player the last two years and plays professionally in Italy.

Canada is also a contender, having defeated the U.S. last year in the World Cup to clinch the automatic North American berth.

* BEST STORY--Playmaker Maureen O'Toole, 39, is considered the best female water polo player ever. She made her national team debut in 1978, at 17, and has been named most valuable player of the national championships 15 times and MVP of the world championships six times.

She retired from competition for the second time in 1994 but returned to the national team in 1997, when women's water polo was added to the Olympic program. A Long Beach native who lives in Piedmont, she plans to retire for good after Sydney.

* SOUTHLAND ATHLETES ON U.S. TEAM--Robin Beauregard, 21, Huntington Beach, Marina High, UCLA; Bernice Orwig, 23, Anaheim and USC; Maureen O'Toole, Long Beach and Azusa Pacific; Nicolle Payne, 24, Gahr High and UCLA; Coralie Simmons, 23, UCLA; Julie Swail, 27, UC Irvine; Brenda Villa, 28, Bell Gardens High.

* KEY DATES--Saturday, U.S. vs. Netherlands; Sept. 21, women's semifinal; Sept. 22, women's semifinal; Sept. 23, gold medal game.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Fast Fact

* Water polo was a popular sport for women in the early 1900s, but many "experts" decided it was too strenuous and rough for women and was dropped by swim clubs and colleges.

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