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Though Success Comes Slowly, U.S. Upbeat About Its Chances


SYDNEY, Australia — Chris Humbert is no wide-eyed kid. He's soon to be 31, has been playing water polo since his multisport-star days at Tokay High in Lodi and professionally in Europe since 1994. He was a three-time All-American at California and this is his third Olympics.

So you could probably forgive him if he were a little blase about the U.S. men's team's slow Olympic start.

But you won't have to, because Humbert is not the least bit blase, and he doesn't think he and his teammates are nearly as bad as they looked in their first two games.

Not only that, he did something about it, scoring the first goal in today's game against the Netherlands, then adding three more as the Americans finally cracked the win column with a 12-8 victory.

"The team got a little angry today--or I did," Humbert said, alluding to 10-7 and 8-5 beatings at the hands of Croatia and Yugoslavia.

Well, who wouldn't be angry, getting hauled out of bed before 5 a.m. to play a game at 9:30.

"Yep, we got up early, 4:50, to get our bodies going, get our minds going," Coach John Vargas said. "We wanted to start fast at that first whistle, and we did. We took it to 'em the whole time."

Between the getting up and the first whistle, the players were a busy bunch.

"We went to the weight room, rode the stationary bikes, used the rowing machine . . . ," Humbert said. "It was just to get the blood pumping and the juices flowing. Then we went to breakfast [at the athletes' village dining hall]. We were the only ones there."

They were joined by the Dutch athletes a few hours later at the Ryde Aquatic Center but at that time of day, the competitors nearly outnumbered the spectators.

No matter to Humbert, goalie Dan Hackett and the rest of the U.S. swimmers, who dominated from the start. Humbert's first goal was an intimidator, a sweeping backhand shot that left Dutch goalie Arie van de Bunt no chance at a save and the U.S. went on from there. Tony Azevedo, the youngster from Long Beach, scored three goals and Kyle Kopp added a pair.

Hackett contributed 10 saves and figured the victory had thrust the U.S. back into contention for a quarterfinal berth. Four teams from each preliminary pool will advance.

"The way we see it, we have to get at least two wins to go on," he said. "That means we have to take care of Hungary or Greece in our last two [preliminary] games."

Hungary being one of the water polo powers, Greece looms as the likely candidate for American victim No. 2.

Not necessarily, Humbert said.

"[This Olympics,] we have a tremendous competition," he said. "There's going to be some great teams not coming home with a medal. That just makes it more exciting.

"I really don't get that much excitement watching our basketball team play. . . . You know who's going to win; you know who's going to be right there. But in our tournament, you just can't pick who's going to win the gold."

Humbert, in fact, says his team still has a shot.

"Absolutely," he said. "We've played better every game. [Against Croatia,] we were awful. Our defense was terrible. Then [Sunday] we came in against Yugoslavia and they beat us by three but we did not play bad. We played an all right game . . . but against a team like Yugoslavia that's maybe not going to be enough. But we have a potential to play great and today we came out and played a little bit better than yesterday. So hopefully [Tuesday against Hungary], we're going to play a little bit better than today. At the end, we're going to be on fire."

Strange concept, that. A water polo team on fire.

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