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O'Toole, 39, Makes a Splash in Delayed Debut


SYDNEY, Australia — The Olympic gods that made Maureen O'Toole wait for 22 years finally smiled on her Saturday night. The player considered the greatest women's water polo player of all time finally got to swim under the bright lights, in the big pool.

When she entered the game to begin the second quarter of the United States' 6-4 first-round upset of the Netherlands, it was one of those historic moments that came and went so fast that you could have missed it if you didn't know the story line.

Here was a 39-year-old mother of one, who had joined the U.S. national water polo team as a 17-year-old at Long Beach Wilson High back in 1978, had been the most valuable player in the world six times and had sweated through every Olympics since 1984, finally getting her chance in the big show.

There were no trumpets blaring, no spotlights or standing ovations. Only Maureen O'Toole, swim suit already torn near her neck and No. 7 on her swim cap, swimming out for the second quarter in a venue called the Ryde Aquatic Center.

"Over the years, it got pretty frustrating, watching the Olympics on TV," O'Toole said. "You rooted for the Americans, but you knew that you were good at something and you wanted a chance to show that."

But the chances seemed to come and go. Women's water polo was a demonstration sport in Los Angeles in '84 and O'Toole said she thought, at the time, that full-medal status would be granted in Seoul in '88.

"When that didn't happen," she said, "then I figured Barcelona. When it didn't happen for Atlanta, I gave up."

But her dream came true about a year after O'Toole retired from the sport. When the Olympic carrot was finally dangled, she returned, then added her expertise and poise to a team that, it appears, is just hitting its stride.

She no longer scores six or seven goals a game. She no longer even starts.

But when the U.S. team, jump-started to a 3-0 lead by goals from Heather Moody, 19-year-old Ericka Lorenz and Stanford star Brenda Villa of Commerce, faded to a 3-3 tie, it looked to the person who has played on six world championship teams and was in her 396th international match.

And O'Toole delivered with a twisting shot from in close that broke the tie with just under a minute left in the third period. The U.S. team would never be caught, and the two points it earned in pool play that will lead to a medal round this weekend marked a major upset, since the Dutch had shared the pre-Olympic favorite role with Australia.

"I was nervous before it started," O'Toole said, "but once we got out in the water, it was fine."

She was asked where this rated in her career highlights.

"This is it. This is as good as it gets," she said. "But see me again Sunday."

She was projecting a possible appearance in a medal game, but she was off a day. The women will play for the first-ever water polo medals here Saturday, which will actually be Friday back home.

O'Toole can be forgiven. Call it a senior moment.

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