LOS ANGELES — In Sydney 12 years ago, the U.S. women’s water polo team took silver when the Aussies scored to win gold with 1.3 seconds remaining.
In Athens in 2004, the Americans took bronze.
Four years ago in Beijing, the U.S. women again took second, this time when the Dutch scored the winning goal with 26 seconds to go.
These are the facts that everyone associated with the U.S. women’s water polo knows by heart. This is why, when the 13-player U.S. team was announced Thursday at a ceremony at the LA 84 Foundation, the legacy building from the Summer Games here 28 years ago, the rah-rah video closed with this tag-line: “It’s our time.”
Time will tell, of course, whether this U.S. team will do what the three that came before it could not, whether it can meet the challenge coach Adam Krikorian has long set, which he reiterated Thursday in public, to rise to “competitive greatness.”
He said, “It’s about bringing your best when your best is needed.”
What sets this team apart is that it is, truly, a team.
Under Krikorian, who took over after Beijing from Guy Baker, the players have come together to form a remarkably close bond.
Their unity could have come apart after the U.S. team got drilled at the 2011 world championships in Shanghai, the Americans ultimately finishing sixth.
Instead, they rebounded. At the Pan American Games a couple months later in Guadalajara, Mexico, they not only won to claim their Olympic qualifying spot, they did so in astonishing fashion, rallying from three goals down at halftime to knock off Canada for the gold medal in a penalty shootout. The final score: 27-26.
“We learned at the world championships how not to deal with adversity,” Krikorian said, adding a moment later, “Two months later, we showed how to deal with adversity.”
Goalie Betsey Armstrong may be the best in the world. She deflects such praise, saying Thursday: “I know these girls have my back. I have their back. It’s a genuine relationship.”
Heather Petri was one of the shooters in that Guadalajara penalty drama. “No nerves,” she said. “It was awesome.”
Petri and Brenda Villa will now be four-time Olympians. They will have been on all four U.S. water polo teams since 2000; that’s when the International Olympic Committee opened the Games to women.
Villa, 32, was introduced Thursday as captain of the 2012 team. She has done it all with the exception of that gold medal. Indeed, she was named the FINA magazine female water polo player of decade for the years 2000-10.
Petri, who turns 34 in a month, said the medal can’t become a grail unto itself. “It’s attainable,” she said but cautioning, “You stop making it about that.” It’s the journey, the practices, the time together, she said, calling the time between Beijing and London — despite a serious injury — “the lightest of my four years” and saying, “I find joy in the smallest little things.”
Two sisters made the team: Jessica and Maggie Steffens. Jessica played on the 2008 team. Maggie turns 19 in two weeks. Jessica graduated from Stanford in 2009. Maggie starts there after the London Games.
There were no surprises in the roster unveiled Thursday. This was the team Krikorian has been going with for several months now.
It’s a defensive-minded team.
It’s a deep team.
It’s a team that — despite the presence of Villa — doesn’t rely on one outsized star to carry the load. On any given day, anybody on the U.S. team can beat you. That makes this team hard to scout, and difficult to prepare for.
NBC is prepared to show a lot of this team — even before the Games, including a July 8 nationally televised game against Hungary to be played at Corona (Calif.) del Mar High School.
“We understand that on any given day,” Krikorian said, “we can lose.”
Then again, he said, and you know what he has to be thinking, “We can win.”