No Payne, No Gain

USA Goalkeeper Nicolle Payne Looking to Cause Headaches for Shooters in Sydney

By Eric Velazquez

SHE absolutely loves the game. Always has. And if water polo suits had sleeves, you can bet that USA goalkeeper Nicolle Payne would wear her heart there.

When fans take in a U.S. game where Payne is in goal, they know they are in for a show. The acrobatic saves and relentless effort displayed by Payne in the net are not only fun to watch, but a testament to how the game should be played. She leaves the pool every day weary and worn, having left it all in the tank. If you ask Payne, however, she’ll tell you that it comes with the territory–that she doesn’t know any other way to play. It is that trademark aggressive, all-out style that has become the signature of Payne’s game. And now she’s taking it to Sydney.

A multi-sport athlete growing up, Payne would quickly find her calling. As a field player in soccer, it was soon realized that her talents were best utilized in the net. Naturally, her prep coaches felt that her success at stopping goals on the ground would translate into the water. As it turns out, they were right.

Payne worked out to be a big addition at the position and became one of the hottest keepers in the nation–and all the right people were watching.

Payne joined the U.S. National Team back in 1995, and found herself in a great spot. The incumbent goal-keepers had recently decided to call it quits, giving Payne free reign to show her stuff as the new starter in the cage for Team USA. She was a force in the pool, and a team leader, making an immediate impact in international competition. At the 1995 U.S. Olympic
Festival, Payne racked up 54 saves in only six games. Suffice to say, she was on her way to becoming a mainstay for U.S. water polo in goal.

Things would change, however, in the winter of 2000 when a new face arrived on the scene. USC’s Bernice Orwig, the National Female Collegiate Player of
the Year in 1999, began training full-time with the National Team, giving Payne a run for her money in the starting lineup. A few short months later, at the Thetis Cup in Greece, it was Orwig’s name, not Payne’s, that was being read in the starting six.

Payne humbly resigned herself to the role of backup, but never lost sight of her goal: To play and to contribute in the Olympic Games should the opportunity arise.

A U.S. victory over Hungary at the Olympic Qalification Tournament in Palermo, Sicily, in April created just that, earning Team USA and Nicolle
Payne a ticket to Sydney. In July, the U.S. played host to the entire Olympic field at the Holiday Cup. All six teams that will compete in the "Land Down Under" converged on the U.S. Water Polo National Aquatic Center for a six-day tournament that would, in all likelihood, serve as a preview of things to come.

USA coach Guy Baker had the luxury of choosing between two very capable keepers in Payne and Orwig, but instead opted to rotate the two over the six days. Payne, eager to get back in the cage, wasn’t about to take this chance and just go through the motions. She just doesn’t know how.

In Payne’s three outings, the 5-9 "backup" compiled 31 saves, including 13 in the championship game against Canada, and was named as the tournament’s Most Outstanding Goalkeeper. The U.S. went on to defeat all comers, going 6-0 on the week, and dropping its name into the hat as a gold medal contender. A heady thought to contemplate–but Payne said she was just happy to be in the water.

"I really wanted to play in that tournament, and I was given a chance," she said. "I got out there and focused and played with intensity. I had a great

If Payne has her way, she’ll get a chance to showcase her skills again in Australia next month.

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