One of the best, if most unheralded, stories in American sports notched another milestone Sunday.
The U.S. women’s water polo team, building toward London and the 2012 Games, won a major tune-up event called the FINA World Super League Final, defeating Italy in the championship game, 9-7. The tournament was staged in Tianjin, China.
The victory gives the U.S. team six World League Super Final championships and five straight FINA titles — three Super Final victories, one world championship (Rome, 2009) and one World Cup.
Shortly after winning the final game, in a phone call from China, two players who over the last several years have seen much of the American program, said they were pleased, yes, but far from satisfied.
“I think we grew a lot as a team this week,” Villa, arguably the mainstay of the U.S. team since the 2000 Sydney Olympics, said.
“Things are really going well,” said Rulon, who played in the 2004 Athens Games. “But we are pretty far off from where I and the rest of the team want to be.”
That’s experience talking, and that’s also buy-in — buy-in to the program and mind-set of Adam Krikorian, the women’s team’s head coach since the spring of 2009.
It’s easy to explain why.
One, the U.S. team has, over the past decade, won everything except for Olympic gold. That is the goal, and everything along the way is a stepping stone.
Two, this edition of the U.S. team was brought together at the beginning of 2011; it is, in many regards, a brand-new team. Moreover, starting in January, Krikorian put them through a series of rigorous workouts. He said it would be hard. It was. But it also produced results — undeniably better fitness.
As in any team sport, you win with defense. In Tianjin, the better fitness started to really show itself.
Over the course of the tournament, the U.S. team held opponents to about six goals per game.
“Obviously, winning the World League Super Final is nice,” Krikorian said. “Every tournament — you’re playing to win. The more important thing is I look at how we were with our focus, and our focus this trip has been our defensive effort, and we were phenomenal.
“To hold teams to an average of six goals per game — that is what we talked about what we wanted to accomplish. We did it defensively and we did it using everyone. The strength of this team is we are deep and we do it using everyone.”
Next up for the U.S. team: the 2011 world championships, back in China, in Shanghai, in mid-July.
“Even though we won, there are still plenty of things we can better at,” Krikorian said. “We will watch the video and they will be easy to find, believe me, and hopefully we will play better at the world championships.”