Feature by Jeff Commings
HUNTINGTON BEACH, California, July 16. TO say that Shea Buckner is living the dream as a member of the American men's water polo team is a bit of an understatement.
“Just the opportunity to even try out for the Olympic team was a dream,” said the 25-year-old first-time Olympian.
The 13 players on the team left for London today. They will spend a few days in the Olympic city for team processing procedures, then travel to Croatia and Hungary for a few days of pre-Games training before returning to march in the Opening Ceremony.
Croatia and Hungary are two countries that will factor heavily into the men's water polo competition in the Olympics. Croatia was sixth in the 2008 tournament, while Hungary has won gold in the past three Olympics. The United States left Beijing with a silver medal after losing to Hungary 14-10. Despite spending time in the homelands of two of their biggest rivals, Buckner said there are no plans to stage any major pre-Games matches.
“We won't do much more than fine-tuning things and maybe do a little scrimmaging,” he said. “We don't want to be playing any tough games this close to the Olympics.”
Since Beijing, the Americans have had difficulty returning to the medal stand in major competitions. The highest finish in international play since the 2008 Olympics has been fourth place, done at the 2011 and 2012 FINA world league super final tournaments.
Buckner said the team's poor performance in the past few years could be chalked up to a lack of unity. Most of the players on the 2008 Olympic team left the United States for professional water polo gigs in Europe, meeting up with the U.S. team for major tournaments shortly before play began.
“After 2008 the team went our separate ways,” said Buckner, who was a part of last summer's world championship team that placed sixth. “We weren't coming into training camp on the same page.”
But the Americans have spent the last six months together as two dozen players tried out for one of 13 spots on the Olympic team. Buckner said the unity he never saw in the four years between Olympics slowly returned, and it could be the key to winning an Olympic medal.
“We're going into the Olympics with six months of great preparation behind us,” Buckner said. “This is a good time to hone in on our skills and abilities and teamwork. There's no better time to do it than right now when we have our 13 guys together.”
The squad's first Olympic game will pit them against Montenegro on July 29, a team that placed fourth in Beijing. Preliminary match play runs through August 6, with the gold medal final scheduled for August 12.
Buckner is enjoying every moment of the Olympic experience, including training and bonding with some of the players that were part of past Olympic squads. Though he's seen much success at the collegiate level as a member of the University of Southern California's 2008 and 2009 national championship teams, being an Olympian takes on an entirely new perspective.
“It's a whole different animal,” he said. “You've got the best players in the country on this team. Experience plays a big part in getting yourself on this team.”
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