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Americans' Defeat Is a Tear-Jerker


SYDNEY, Australia — Their tears mixed with the chlorinated water that still glistened on their bodies. Stunned by the abrupt ending of their gold-medal dreams in a dramatic 4-3 loss to Australia on Saturday, members of the U.S. women's water polo team tried to savor winning a silver medal and not mourn how close they came to becoming the sport's first Olympic champion.

"We've all cried in the last half-hour," Coach Guy Baker said after his players had accepted their medals but before they had accepted the harsh reality of their loss. "We've all had our moments. It's something that's true in all sports. If you aren't successful, no matter how well you play, there's still tremendous pain."

Their turn from joyful anticipation to hollow disbelief was almost too swift to comprehend.

Buoyed by a tying extra-man goal from Brenda Villa with 13 seconds to play that silenced the many Aussie fans among the crowd of 17,000 at the Sydney International Aquatic Center, the U.S. players happily anticipated going to overtime. "We called time out and scored, and we were all focused and ready," Villa said. "I was really excited and happy. We just needed to play a few more seconds of defense, and we have a great defensive team."

As the clock ticked toward zero, a foul was called against U.S. driver Julie Swail. An apparent Australia goal was disallowed, and Swail was sent off for being too close to the shooter. Still in possession of the ball, Australia's Simone Hankin set it for an unguarded Yvette Higgins with 1.3 seconds left; Higgins' left-handed shot deflected off U.S. player Coralie Simmons before eluding goalkeeper Bernice Orwig, drawing roars from the partisan crowd but leaving the U.S. contingent frustrated and dejected.

Orwig, whose stellar work in goal blunted a persistent Australian attack, cried at the postgame news conference and was too distraught to speak. Maureen O'Toole, the 39-year-old water polo pioneer who on Saturday played the final game of a distinguished career, only barely maintained her composure after what she considered a bad call.

"I wouldn't change anything, except for the last game. I'd love to change that," said O'Toole, who plans to retire. "I'm sure in a few weeks or months I'll be able to forget about it and put a smile on my face."

But not Saturday. "It's pretty disappointing and painful to lose like that in the last second," she said.

Villa was unsure of what happened, but said she thought Higgins couldn't take a direct shot from beyond the seven-meter barrier and should have had to pass. Other players said Higgins made several pump fakes before shooting and couldn't have gotten a shot off before time expired, and that she illegally moved forward.

"I was up there. I would have been in a slightly different position if I knew it was live," Villa said. "Her teammate went in there and threw it out to her. . . . We were set for her to get the ball and get it into play. That's why we left her alone."

Said Higgins: "I was telling Simone Hankin to hurry and give me the ball before the Americans were ready. I just shot because we only had a second left. I didn't know what to do. I thought, 'Oh, everybody's jumping up in the air. We won! We won! I'll jump in the air too.' "

Gianni Lonzi, chairman of the technical water polo commission of FINA--the sport's governing body--said in a statement the call was correct. In addition, assessors assigned to judge the performance of referees Renato Dani of Italy and Vladimir Prikhodko of Kazakhstan supported the call.

Baker approached the referees but insisted he merely told them, "Good game," and didn't argue with them. "I'm still going to keep coaching," he said wryly.

But he was quick to credit Australia and Coach Istvan Gorgenyi, a Hungarian hired to bring Australia's women's program to prominence and win gold in its home pool.

"I thought Australia was great. I thought it was fantastic for them to get a goal in that situation," Baker said. "A lot was going on there, as far as where the free throw was. We were a little confused, which is unfortunate."

The ending eclipsed the marvelous tension created by two tenacious, talented teams playing a physical but not dirty game.

Villa gave the U.S. the lead with 2:57 left in the first quarter on an extra-man goal from deep on the left side, but Australia matched that 57 seconds later on a bouncing extra-man goal by left-hander Melissa Mills. Driver Ericka Lorenz put the U.S. ahead again with 2:54 to go in the second quarter, but Australia driver Bronwyn Mayer matched that 42 seconds into the third quarter during a six-on-five situation.

Superb goalkeeping by Orwig and Australia's Liz Weekes kept the game even until Australia's Naomi Castle scored during another six-on-five advantage, with 1:50 left in the fourth quarter. When Villa brought the U.S. even again, its hopes soared. "I felt like nobody really deserved to lose this game," O'Toole said.

The U.S. didn't lose, at least in the eyes of the Australians. "Guy is the most beautiful coach. The game was a fair game," said Gorgenyi, who was pulled into the pool by his players during their postgame celebrations. "It was a great tactical battle."

Said Weekes, who was active in the campaign to add the sport to the Olympic program: "It's a fantastic start for women's water polo in Olympic history. I'm just so happy to be part of it. Hopefully, every young woman is going to want to grow up and be a water polo player."

And when time gives them perspective and distance, the U.S. players will cherish the memory of being part of a first, of something special. "We're glad to be here. A lot of people didn't think we'd get this far," Villa said. "It was fun until the last second."


Medal Winners

Women's Water Polo

Gold: Australia

Silver: United States

Bronze: Russia

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