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U.S. Olympic Water Polo News & Notes -- September 10, 2000

By Eric Velazquez

Sydney, Australia—The sands in the quadrennial hourglass have almost finished sifting. In just one week, thousands of athletes from all over the world will take to the fields, courts, pools, ranges, mats, and tracks of Sydney to pursue excellence in sport’s most coveted competition…the Olympic Games. The XXVIIth Olympiad is nearly upon us, and the U.S. is ready to play.

Both the men’s and women’s team will be competing for the Stars and Stripes in the Land Down Under in 2000. Men’s water polo, the oldest team sport in the Olympic Games, last captured gold in 1904, but has since racked up two silver and three bronze. This year, coach John Vargas looks to lead his squad, which he refers to as “the most physically talented team” in recent U.S. history, to the medals ceremonies with the first water polo gold of the new millennium.

For the women, this will be their first dive into the Olympic mix. Prior to July, the U.S. was referred to as a “last ditch qualifier” with little chance of competing with top teams like Australia and Holland. After winning the Holiday Cup with a victory over Canada back on July 9, Team USA eradicated its prior billing and propelled them into the gold medal mentionables file.

Women Begin Practice: The Team USA women passed through Sydney customs on September 4 with little or no trouble, and almost immediately began busying
themselves with the task at hand…taking the gold in the first Olympics to include women’s water polo.

Practicing twice a day since September 6, the squad is in good spirits and enjoying themselves.

“The girls are all pretty laid back right now,” said team captain Julie Swail. “It hasn’t really hit us yet that we’re here and we’re really in the Olympics, but we’re still very focused on what we have to do.”

A light practice on Friday (Sept. 8), was followed by a brief scrimmage against the Canadian national team. USA won, 6-3.

Taking a “Ryde” Into History: The first venue to host women’s Olympic water polo will be the Ryde Aquatic Center in Sydney. The state-of-the-art facility has undergone various renovations this summer and is shaping up to accommodate the scope of the events to come.

The expanded seating now fits approximately 4,000 spectators and is adorned in more flags and banners than you can count. It is an acoustic dream, which
when filled to the brim with the sold out audiences that are expected, will be deafeningly loud…music to the ears of those who have helped elevate women’s water polo to where it is today.

Baker’s Bits: Coach Guy Baker, the man charged with guiding this team through the six-team, eight-day competition, is optimistic about the state of his team right now. Here’s his take…

On the trip:
“We’re still getting to where we need to be,” Baker said of the 14-hour-plus flight. “Some of the girls are still suffering from jetlag. People are at different phases of how they feel. Some people feel are starting to feel good now, some people felt good yesterday…some people felt good yesterday and feel lousy today. It takes a while for everyone to get on the same clock again.”

On being included in the gold medal rumor mill:
“It’s nice to be talked about,” he said with agrin. “It’s all going to play itself out. I think that it’ll be close to call for anyone. I still think
that Australia and Holland look great on paper, Canada has improved a lot, and Russia is still the team that beat Italy in Italy to qualify for the Olympic Games. I think it’s going to be difficult for any of those four teams to get to the medal round, but once they do, there’s no telling what’s going to happen then. So it’s nice to be mentioned, but hopefully we’re mentioned when it’s all over, that’ll be the key.”

On the having two steady goalkeepers to go to:
“I think it’s a definite advantage in a lot of ways,” he said. “The team is comfortable playing with both goalkeepers. They’re both playing because
they’re both playing well right now. At the Holiday Cup, Bernie (Orwig) was playing so-so, and Nicolle (Payne) was on fire, but now they’re both playing
well and it’s very advantageous. We’ll decide in the next couple of days, the order of games that they’re going to go in, giving them a glance ahead at who they’re going to play. Another great aspect of this is that we’ll have all 13 players contributing.”

On the ticketing situation:
“Aside from the players’ tickets, I think they’re all sold out,” he said. “We’re still trying to get families in here. I think Courtney (Johnson) is
bringing half the state of Utah in here. Last person out of Utah, turn off the lights.”

Press Conference:
The U.S. women’s water polo team will be holding a press conference at the Main Press Center in Sydney on Tuesday, September 12 at 2:00 p.m. Coach Baker, Julie Swail, Maureen O’Toole, and Brenda Villa will all be in attendance for the one-hour affair. Swail is the team’s captain and head coach for the newly formed women’s water polo team at UC Irvine…O’Toole is
widely regarded as the best female to ever don a water polo cap and emerged from retirement to pursue Olympic gold…Villa hails from one of the USA’s top water polo hotbeds in Commerce, Calif., and is establishing herself as one of the world’s top young players.

Men’s Notes:
--The USA men’s water polo team will arrive in Sydney on September 12, and will begin training on September 13, fresh off of three straight wins over the Romanian national team in California. For the series the U.S. outscored Romania 35-21, scoring near half of that in one game at a 17-10 offensive explosion at El Toro High School on August 31.

The Skinny on Sydney, by Eric Velazquez:
After a slightly long and turbulent ride over the Pacific Ocean and several time zones, I arrived in Sydney, along with the other press officers just
after 6 a.m. on Thursday (Sept. 7). For the record, it was Tuesday (Sept. 5) when I left the States. The Olympic Park, which surrounds the main stadium
and includes the Main Press Center (where us media types congregate), is decorated to the nines. The Australian Organizing Committee has gone to great lengths to transform Sydney into an Olympic paradise, and I’m sure that those who attend, as well as those who watch on television, will not be disappointed. So far, the people have been wonderful. Although, I can say less for the popular Australian spread called Vegemite, which tastes more like Vege-might-not.