U.S. women’s water polo: the crucible of 2011

If, next summer in London, the U.S. women’s water polo team wins Olympic gold, it will be because of the crucible of 2011.

At the quarterfinals of the world championships in Shanghai, the U.S. women endured a brutal loss to Russia. Then, a couple days ago, at the championships of the Pan Am Games in Guadalajara, with an Olympic berth on the line, they pulled out an epic victory.

Rallying from four goals down midway through the third period, the Americans managed to tie the game at 8-8 the end of regulation. That was followed by the two standard overtime periods; no scores. Time for a shootout.

Five shots.

Ten.

Fifteen.

Still no winner.

American attacker Maggie Steffens shooting against Canada in the Pan Am Games final // photo: Straffon Images

Mind you, that was because the Americans — with one block — kept making shots. But so — with one block, by American goalie Betsey Armstrong — did the Canadians.

Brenda Villa, 31, an attacker who not only has been to three Olympic Games on the U.S. team but is the FINA Magazine female water polo player of the last decade, nailed four — count ‘em, four — shots herself.

“Just going up there to shoot — it’s for your team so you have to lose all your thoughts so you don’t get too nervous,” she said. “It’s just business.”

Finally, it came to this: 18-year-old attacker Maggie Steffens nailed yet another shot for the Americans. The Canadians missed.

The final score, and this was water polo, not football: 27-26.

The Americans converted 19 of 20 opportunities in the shootout. That’s just plain gutsy.

“It was crazy,” said Courtney Mathewson, another American attacker. “We prevailed because we believe in ourselves. There is no panic when we are down by three or four. I think we believed in each other and that was the difference.”

Adam Krikorian, the U.S. coach, said, “I told the girls this is the greatest game I’ve ever been a part of — maybe the most courageous, most mentally tough group of girls during one game that I’ve ever seen.

In the celebrations on the pool deck and afterward there was this:

Two months ago — it’s not clear the Americans would have won this game.

Betsey Armstrong in goal for the United States in the gold medal-winning game against Canada // photo: Straffon Images

In Shanghai, up 6-2 in the third period against Russia in the quarterfinals, the Americans gave up five straight goals, lost 9-7 and then ended up finishing sixth at the worlds.

It was dispiriting and disheartening — and yet exactly, in a weird way, perhaps what this team needed.

After the 2008 Games, the women’s team switched gears, Krikorian taking over as coach from Guy Baker. The team, though, kept on winning, and winning, and winning — over the years everything except Olympic gold.

The U.S. women took silver in Sydney in 2000, bronze in Athens in 2004, silver again in Beijing in 2008.

Krikorian, at the beginning of 2011, put his charges through what was essentially a boot camp. He promised it would toughen them up physically and mentally. Physically, there was no doubt — several of them swimming lap times faster than ever before.

The loss in Shanghai could have swung things two ways.

It could have turned the team against Krikorian. After all, that loss was the first meaningful defeat for the U.S. team in a long time.

Instead — everyone came home and doubled down. Together.

All in. Players, staff, coaches.

With buy-in, anything and everything becomes possible.

London-bound: the Pan Am Games gold medal-winning U.S. women's water polo team // photo: Straffon Images

In Shanghai, “I don’t think we were united there as a team yet,” Villa said. “Not buying in but having complete faith in each other. It showed [against Canada]. It’s great to come together and do that, and as we move forward it’s only going to get — our bond, it’s only going to get stronger.”

Armstrong, the team’s No. 1 goalie, added, “It’s easy to say now that we won this game that it’s the case but leading up to this tournament it motivated this time to connect. It’s almost a cliché that it was the best thing to happen to us but it is It was the motivating factor for us to come together as a group to work hard in the pool.”

Krikorian echoed, “When you continue to win, it’s easy to put things that are important on the back burner. When you finally face defeat and stare it down and chew on it for two, two and a half months, it makes you re-evaluate things, staff included.

“It was the first time during a game, a close game, in the last two years for me that I felt like the group had taken it over. It was actually out of my hands. That’s what I’m looking for. That’s what I want to see. That’s what great leaders do; that’s what great teams do. They take it upon themselves. They did it in four quarters. They held strong.”

There’s a break now for this team for November, and then they’re back at it again, looking now toward London. There are three weddings on tap this month — Mathewson, utility Lauren Wenger and team leader Jennifer Adams.

“All three of their weddings,” Krikorian said, and he laughed, “might be that much more enjoyable.”

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