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Medal Is Won After Another Lead Is Lost

U.S. women's water polo takes the bronze with a 6-5 win over Australia after an all-too-familiar rally erases Americans' four-goal advantage.

August 27, 2004|Bill Dwyre | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — The little dark cloud that has been hanging over the U.S. women's water polo team for much of the last four years drifted away here Thursday in the Olympic bronze-medal game.

When the last Australian shot, with 11 seconds left in the game, skimmed once and was cradled by goalie Jackie Frank, the team that couldn't hold on finally had. The U.S. had defeated Australia, 6-5, and in some measure softened memories of Sydney in 2000 and Italy two days ago.

But when a 5-1 lead had been converted to a 5-5 tie early in the fourth quarter, fans of this team and this sport had to be raising eyebrows.

The history is as follows:

* In the closing seconds of the gold-medal game in Sydney, with the score tied, a confusing call distracted the U.S. long enough to allow Australia's Yvette Higgins an opening to fire in the winning goal. When it hit the net, the clock showed 1.2 seconds left.

* Tuesday, the U.S. got a tying goal from Ellen Estes in the semifinals against Italy, and had the ball for the last possession. But an offensive foul was called, giving the ball back to Italy and, in a final flurry, Maneula Zanchi fired in the winning goal. When it hit the net, the clocked showed 2 seconds.

So, if Thursday's victory over Australia wasn't redemption, for themselves and for their fans, it was something close to that for U.S. women's water polo and Coach Guy Baker.

"At 5-1, it was kind of like, here we go again," Baker said. "But I kept telling them to play in the now.

"This is a tough group, a bunch of perfectionists. When we did our exit interviews after Sydney, after they won a silver medal, they all thought they had had a bad Olympics. I have told them now that this is an Olympic medal, something to enjoy, something you have for the rest of your life."

U.S. expectations had been high coming into Athens. The team had won the world championships last year and had seven players back from that almost-gold-medal team in Sydney. That included 6-foot center Estes, a Stanford player from Novato, Calif. She scored two goals against Australia, including the goal that gave the U.S. a 5-1 lead with 3:31 to play in the third quarter.

But when the clock had ticked down to 2:20 in the final quarter, Australia had tied it -- two of the goals were deflected away from Frank's reach by her own defenders -- and the U.S. was looking to shake its late-game failures.

The opportunity came when Joanne Fox was sent to the penalty box, giving the U.S. a six-on-five, water polo's version of a hockey power play. The ball went quickly from Kelly Rulon to Estes, who was being mauled as she held her center position, about five yards from the goal. The pass was perfect and Estes gathered and fired in one motion. It was 6-5, but the nervousness wasn't over.

One Australian shot almost sneaked behind Frank, but she gathered it away from the goal just inches shy of a score.

"It caught me when I started to come out of the goal," she said. "I just got back in time."

Finally, it came down to Melissa Rippon of Australia, ball held high in her hand, firing away for one last chance. This time, after one scary skim, the bounce went the U.S. way. Right into Frank's arms. In the end, bronze felt pretty good.

"It was awesome," Estes said.

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