GWANGJU, South Korea — It was still raining, and hard, at game time Friday evening as one of America’s great ongoing sports dynasties readied for its latest gold-medal test.
The U.S. women’s water polo team doesn’t get even a fraction of the mainstream publicity the women’s national soccer team does. When the water polo team wins by the score of, say, 26-1, as it did a few days ago in defeating South Africa to win its group here at the 2019 FINA world championships, there’s no celebrating in the corner or dancing after each goal of or anything of the sort. That’s not the culture of this group. Or, for that matter, the sport.
All the same, you want excellence? Dedication? Passion? An unwavering commitment to team and country? To the sport? To the notion that by being the best they can be they are in every way role models for little girls — and, perhaps, little boys, too?
The rain came down hard and fast and the women of the U.S. national water polo team gathered to put their hands together in the moments before they played Spain, and Maggie Steffens, arguably the best player of her generation, said all she could do was smile. She felt nervous, sure. But good nervous. This was fun. She had a big smile. She would say later, recalling the feeling, “What an opportunity,” adding, “That to me was really special.”
This team is special. It deserves luminous, flattering attention of the sort the soccer team just got. We are in the midst of genuine greatness, this group of Americans going on Friday night to steamroll Spain, 11-6.
Tied at 3, scoreless for more than six minutes during the second quarter, the Americans scored two late goals before halftime, then added four more to put the game away at 9-3 by the end of three. Goalie Ashleigh Johnson was her usual brilliant self, stopping six of seven Spain shots in the first quarter alone.
“They came to play,” said a soaking-wet Adam Krikorian, the U.S. coach — and not just from the rain. He was tossed into the pool afterward by his players. “They love these moments. In fact, they miss these moments.”
“I feel amazing,” Rachel Fattal said in an interview with another of the American mainstays, Melissa Seidemann, posted after the game to Twitter. a for-fun piece that nonetheless underscored the closeness, the chemistry, the culture of the team. “It feels amazing to win a world championship. And winning with your best friends is the best feeling in the world.”
For the American women, it was their third straight FINA world title. The U.S. women are, as well, the 2012 and 2016 Olympic gold medalists. Here, though, is the killer stat: this was the U.S. women’s team’s 53rd straight victory in international competition. The win streak, which dates to April 2018, is believed to be the longest in the Olympic era of women’s water polo.
The only American program perhaps comparably as dominant would, of course, be the U.S. men’s national basketball team. But the way that basketball team is put together and operates — a collection of NBA stars that gets together for summer tournaments — is, in comparison to the women’s water polo team, apples and oranges
The similarity? The wins.
“We’re very happy to have brought home the gold,” Steffens said. “For us, we strive to be at the top of the podium and hear our anthem at the end of the tournament …”
Amid the elements, the game not only underscored the American program’s winning ways. It also marked a fabulous celebration of water polo and, more particularly, women’s water polo.
Rowie Webster, who plays for Australia, bronze medalists here, said her favorite moment of the entire tournament came in a game that matched South Korea and Russia.
In its first game, South Korea lost to Hungary, 64-0. That is not a typo: 64-0.
In its second outing, the Koreans, predictably, got beat badly again, by Russia. This time, the final score was 30-1. In that lone goal, two players on the Korean sideline literally cried tears of joy — an emotion that seemed to wash over everyone in the tournament.
“I think there’s a real movement in women’s sport,” Webster said. “We want to be the best role models for the women in each country. We can incorporate that and share that — win, lose or draw.”
Spain’s Roser Tarragó, who played in college at Cal-Berkeley, said of the sport, “It’s the most fun and it’s one of the hardest. It’s an honor to be able to be an example for little girls.”
Steffens said, “I actually kept in my room the magazine or journal cover of the two Korean girls hugging and crying because our team, the players, had talked about, wow, that joy, and living so much in the moment — that one goal can bring a team so much joy. And it kind of inspired us to continue to find that in our game.”
She also asked, rhetorically, “How often on the podium do you see all three teams take a photo together?” And: “We’re trying to showcase that this sport is amazing, especially on the women’s side … it’s the most fun and it’s tough out there.” Because the sport is swimming, basketball, soccer and hockey all rolled into one, she said, “Any fan, if they watch, can relate to it,” adding, “We play it in a beautiful way.”
For those who remember the devastating American loss in literally the final second of the 2000 Sydney Olympics to Australia, which marked the return of the women’s tournament to the Games, to the sixth-place finish in the 2011 FINA worlds, this 53-win run is a reminder of Krikorian’s mantra — complacency is a killer and what matters, keenly and most, is consistency.
“We all have a choice in how we want to be,” Krikorian said. “Listen, we’ve had a lot of success. But we’re not perfect. We have our own issues, as every team does, and as every athlete and every coach does. I think we’re humble in that sense.
“We know that we’re not perfect, as much success as we’ve had. We continue to strive to be better. We’ve just been very consistent with our approach. I think that’s why we’ve gotten the consistent results. It sounds stupid but it’s true.”
He added, “It’s not flashy. And in this day and age, sometimes flashy sells. Controversy sells. We’re not a very controversial group. But we’re pretty damn good. And pretty damn consistent.”
Now, of course, comes the challenge of a second threepeat — next year, and the Olympics in Tokyo.
There’s a method — consistency — to that, though, too.
“We’re trying to enjoy this moment, and that’s what allows us to keep trying to improve,” Steffens said.
“You want to enjoy your successes and learn from your failures and even today we can think about how much we can improve from our final game. But right now we are trying to enjoy this moment, this shared experience we had — with the rain, this incredible stadium. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that not only can we look back on and share this memory but it’s something we can build on for next year.
“Just having this experience, getting to play great games leading up to this final — so, for us, it’s for sure trying to stay in the present and enjoy that and learn as much as we can from that, and that’s going to be our building block from tomorrow to the next day.”