Women’s Water Polo: A Silver Lining

By Eric Velazquez

Years spent and sacrifices made. But when the crowds had quieted, the lights had dimmed, and the waters had settled at the Sydney International Aquatic Center yesterday, it was silver, not gold, that draped around the necks of the 13 members of the U.S. women’s water polo team…a remarkable achievement, but not the ending that Coach Baker and company had scripted over the last
few months.

When the final horn sounded in last night’s gold medal game, there was no changing the unsettling fact, no denying the scoreboard. Australia had come out on the top end of a game that will go down in the annals of water polo history. The first gold medals ever handed out in women’s water polo went to the host country, their Red, White, and Blue clad guests watching from only feet away.

Glancing over the faces of the players, the occasional tear-moistened eye painfully captured the disappointment of the end result. But gradually,
these remarkable women began to realize something…they had succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. They were a part of history.

At the start of the summer, the U.S. women were merely known as a “last-ditch qualifier”, with hardly a shot of medalling in Sydney. But that would soon change. Enter the Holiday Cup, where these athletes, led by coach Guy Baker, showed the world their entitlement to be mentioned in the gold-medal rumor mill. Team USA welcomed, defeated, and sent home the whole of the Olympic field, ousting North American rival Canada twice in the process. The U.S. had declared its arrival to the critics.

In Sydney, the team was no less than brilliant. The U.S. lost only one game in preliminary play, to Australia, and finished second in the standings.
However, one tie managed to dot the U.S. record. Playing against Canada, the U.S. scored three goals over a stretch of 1:50 in the fourth quarter, with
Robin Beauregard beating the clock to secure a tie.

It was that big-game mentality and penchant for pulling out tight games that propelled Team USA into the gold medal game with Australia. Unfortunately,
the arm of Yvette Higgins had the final say in who would walk away with the prize.

But silver is hardly something to look down on. They are an amazingly talented group of women who waited their turn to secure their spot in the books…women whose aquatic skill is only outdone by their bright eyes, luminous smiles, upright character, unrelenting fortitude, and unbelievable persistence. Their cloud definitely has a silver lining.

And a good portion of them will be back for Athens in 2004.

The End of an Era:

Saturday night not only marked the end of America’s gold medal bid, but the end of an era, as well. Water polo’s most storied woman ever, Maureen O’Toole, finally called it quits after a brilliant career that has spanned three decades.

O’Toole, regarded as the best female water polo player of all time, will finally rest her swimsuit and cap to make up for lost time with work and family.

O’Toole has not only been a joy to watch in these Games, but a fantastic ambassador for the sport, at times being just as concerned with the potential impact of the Olympics on women’s water polo as she was with the games themselves.

“This is so great…just look at this crowd,” she said, following last night’s gold medal game. “I hope that all the little girls in America were watching and want to play water polo.”

A particularly tender moment came just following the gold medal game, when Maureen was met by her eight-year-old daughter, Kelly, who had been brought down to the pool deck as a surprise. Maureen, fighting tears after a painful loss, took glance of a smiling Kelly and swept her up in an embrace for the ages.

“I’ve always said that no matter how this turns out, it’s still just a water polo game,” she said. “I love this game, but it’s not life. I will look back
on this as an incredibly great experience.”

Was this the way that she wanted to leave her career, though?

“I’ll probably be back in 2004 since we didn’t win the gold,” she said, leaving a room full of reporters and coach Baker speechless. “Just kidding. This was it for sure.” And with that, she left the podium, all smiles after an unspeakably decorated career.



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