By Eric Velazquez
Photos by Michael Collins
Sydney, Australia—Australia became the first Golden Girls of water polo Saturday night at the Sydney International Aquatic Center, defeating the U.S., 4-3, in the most anticipated game in this week’s inaugural women’s Olympic water polo tournament.
Yvette Higgins fired the shot heard ‘round the world on Saturday, burying a shot from seven meters out to shatter the 3-3 impasse with 0.2 seconds left in the game. The goal sent the record crowd of 17,000-plus into an uproar, with chants of “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie-Oy, Oy, Oy” and Waltzing Matilda barely audible under the madness.
In a game that will forever be remembered for generations to come, the score was knotted three times, including once in the final minute of the game.
The U.S. led 2-1 at the half on goals from young guns Ericka Lorenz and Brenda Villa. With 6:18 to play in the third, the Aussie contingent tied the game at 2-2, courtesy of Bronwyn Mayer, who had sneaked into set on a 6-on-5 play.
The score remained deadlocked at 2-2 for most of the fourth quarter, but Australia’s Naomi Castle connected on an extra-man situation with 1:50 left to give Australia the lead. With 26.4 seconds left on the clock, USA veteran Maureen O’Toole managed to draw an ejection on Taryn Woods, prompting coach Guy Baker to call a timeout.
The x’s and o’s session payed dividends, with Villa scoring her second goal of the day—a rocket from the left side of the pool that went bar-in with 13.1 seconds left. Australia pushed the ball up on its next possession, with the U.S. pressuring hard up top.
It looked as if the game was destined for overtime, but with 1.3 seconds on the clock, U.S. captain Julie Swail was called for an ejection, stopping the
clock. The ensuing free pass ended up in the hands of 22-year-old Yvette Higgins who caught and shot from the point about seven meters out. The ball, which was fired high left, was tipped by Coralie Simmons and goalkeeper Bernice Orwig before finding its home in the cage with 0.2 seconds left. Robin Beauregard’s last-ditch attempt to tie the game missed the mark,
giving Australia the sport’s first ever gold medal. The U.S. women, whose only defeat in preliminary play came at the hands of their hosts, took the silver.
“It’s a little disappointing not to get the gold,” said Beauregard. “The game was close and it could have gone either way, but it’s still great to win a medal.”
There was no ill will between the teams, as shown by reactions in a joint post-game press conference.
Baker, who has called Australia the gold medal favorite all summer long, reiterated his great respect for Australian coach Istvan Gorgenyi and his team.
“He’s a great coach,” said Baker. “And he’s built a strong team here. I completely admire their composure with 13 seconds left. They were great to get that shot off.”
Gorgenyi complimented the U.S. on what will be one of the most memorable games in water polo history.
“Two great teams played each other tonight,” he said. “People won’t forget about this game for a long time. It was a big tactical battle, which is why
it was so low scoring. Guy Baker is the most beautiful coach, and the fairest, that I’ve ever met.”
The enormous crowd support and media turnout sent a jolt through the wide world of women’s water polo, a sport that has waited 100 years to join its male counterpart on the Olympic roster of games. “I think the game was incredible,” said O’Toole, 39, who officially retired at the end of the game. “The crowd was great. It was really fun and it shows just where women’s water polo is now and how far it’s come in 10 years time.”
In other games:
Russia 4, Netherlands 3: Russia pulled off what seemed the inevitable on Saturday night, upsetting reigning World Cup Champion Holland in the bronze medal game, 4-3.