Betsey Armstrong

U.S. women win water polo gold


KAZAN, Russia — Rachel Fattal bubbled up with absolute, incandescent delight in describing late Friday how it felt to win the women’s water polo world championship. “Surreal,” she said. Then, a moment later, “Amazing.” Then, finally, “Unbelievable amounts of joy and happiness.”

The U.S. women, led all tournament by Fattal, part of a new generation of world-class talent on the team, held on Friday night to defeat the Netherlands, 5-4, before a raucous crowd.

The gold medal-winning US women's water polo team // Getty Images

With the victory, the American women won their fourth world championship; no other women’s program has as many.

Further, heading now toward the Rio 2016 Olympics, the U.S. women are — all at the same time — Olympic, world championship, World Cup and World League champions.

“The media likes it. USA Water Polo likes it,” U.S. head coach Adam Krikorian said, referring to that string.

“But every team is unique. Every championship is special.”

You can talk all you want about how tough any sport on the Olympic program is. There’s no doubt the toughest is water polo. The skill set it takes to play the game at a world-class level is formidable, and that’s being generous.

The game demands that you swim, tread water and wrestle with your opponents, all the while trying to shoot the ball into a net or stopping the other team from doing the same. Try it. See if you last even one minute before you end up flopping by the side of the pool.

The U.S. women finished sixth at the world championships in 2011 in Shanghai, losing to Russia in a stunner; they got fifth at the Barcelona 2013 worlds, losing to Spain.

In between, the U.S. women took gold at the 2012 London Games.

Since London and in particular Barcelona, the team has undergone some significant changes.

Heather Petri and Brenda Villa, for instance, mainstays on the U.S. team for more than a dozen years, retired.

So, too, Betsey Armstrong, the starting goalie for years. The backup goalie, Tumua Anae — retired as well.

It is a testament to the athletes in the pipeline — as well as the skill and verve of Krikorian, his assistant coaches and staff — that the U.S. women have been able to, well, plug and play and stay not just near but at the top of the world.

It’s not just that the senior U.S. women are now world champions.

The U.S. girls’ junior and youth teams — they’re No. 1 in the world, too.

Starting goalie Ashleigh Johnson is a rising senior at — of all places — Princeton. She was named the Kazan 2015 tournament’s best goalie.

With about 4 minutes to go in Friday’s final quarter, she made a highlight reel-worthy save on a penalty shot, obviously from point blank range, delivered by Holland’s Catharina Van Der Sloot.

She made another with 16 seconds to go in the game, this time off a shot from Nomi Stomphorst, that sealed the deal for the Americans.

“I didn’t feel very much pressure,” she said when asked about taking over in goal for a mainstay such as Armstrong, adding a moment later that she and the other new U.S. goalie, Sami Hall, were able to step right in: “I feel like this is a new team.”

Which in so many ways it is.

Kami Craig, Courtney Mathewson, Maggie Steffens — they’re still key elements of the U.S. effort.


Maddie Musselman, who just turned 17 in June, is going to be a senior in high school; she scored Friday night to put the U.S. ahead, 2-1, in the second period. Her dad, Jeff, pitched for five years in the major leagues, for Toronto and the New York Mets, from 1986 through 1990.

Makenzie Fisher, 18, just finished high school. Her dad, Erich, was on the U.S. men’s team that took fourth at the 1992 Barcelona Games.

Fattal is due to be a senior this fall at UCLA. She scored once Friday, cementing her status as the tourney MVP.

The set-up for the match Friday night under the lights — game time was 10 p.m. — evoked memories for not just a few observers of the women’s water polo final at the 2008 Beijing Games.

That match featured a higher-ranked U.S. team against an up-and-coming Dutch squad; the Dutch ended up winning, 9-8, on a goal with 26 seconds left from left-hander Danielle de Bruijn; she scored an astonishing seven goals.

The game Friday was notable for its defensive intensity.

Steffens, the U.S. captain, said after the game she could only hear out of her right ear; the left one got dinged, and hard.

When the game was over, two water polo caps, the special headgear that all players wear, lay at the bottom of the pool — they had been ripped off during the game.

The only two-goal lead of the game came late, the Americans up, 5-3, on Mathewson’s shot with 35 seconds to go in the third.

It stayed 5-3 until Holland’s Maud Megens scored with 3:13 to go. 5-4.

Back and forth it went, tension building, until the final save, with those 16 seconds left, by Johnson.

When the final buzzer sounded, all the American players jumped in the pool, dragging Krikorian — in a blue USA Water Polo and khaki pants — and his assistants in, too.

“I’m just happy we eeked that out,” he said. “The Dutch — they played really tough.”

Particle physics and water polo


It is reasonable  to wonder why a story about a water polo coach getting the U.S. Olympic Committee's top award for sportsmanship and fair play would begin with a reference to the award this week of the Nobel Prize in physics for the discovery of something called the Higgs boson particle. The Higgs, as it is known among physicists, has in common parlance come to be called the "god particle," because it explains -- well, everything. It has to do with how things acquire mass. More elementally, as the New York Times' brilliant science writer Dennis Overbye explains, it is that the cosmos is framed by simple, indeed elegant, laws. At the same time, everything interesting -- in particular, us -- happens because of lapses or flaws in that elegance.

That is, because of a mistake.


Our world is so imperfect. It's the mistake, and the response, that is forever so compelling.

In the semifinal round of the women's water polo tournament at the 2012 London Olympics, Adam Krikorian, the U.S. coach, made a tremendous mistake.

With just one second to go, the Americans up by one goal over Australia, 9-8, he called a timeout.

Australian captain Kate Gynther's shot had just rattled off the crossbar. Krikorian thought the ball had ended up in the hands of the American goalkeeper, Betsey Armstrong. He called time. He thought everything was fine and the Americans were on their way, after a hard-fought game with the Aussies, to the gold-medal game.

Suddenly, it was not fine. The officials began huddling.

It wasn't just that the stakes were obviously high. Here, again, was history.

For more than a decade, the U.S. women's water polo program had been on nothing less than a quest for gold.

In Sydney in 2000, at the very first Olympic women's water polo tournament, the U.S. women lost gold -- to Australia -- on a shot made with roughly one second left in the game.

In Athens in 2004, the Americans finished third.

In Beijing in 2008, the Americans again took second, this time behind Netherlands, on a goal scored with just 26 seconds to go.

Krikorian -- who had been the coach at UCLA -- took over the program following Beijing, succeeding Guy Baker. He instilled a new culture. He said, over and again, we are all in this together.

He also made it plain the moment would come -- he didn't know when -- when the players had so bought into the idea of playing not just with but for each other as well as the staff, the coaches and the United States of America that they would know, they would just know, what to do and how to do it.

That, he made clear, was what a team was about.

And -- more.

In our world, so filled with skepticism and doubt, it is so easy, so tempting, to dismiss the idea of a team becoming truly a family. A family is rich with faith and, indeed, with love.

Physics can make incredible things happen. Love, though, is the strongest force of all. It bends time.

When Adam Krikorian called timeout, the problem was this:

Betsey Armstrong did not, in fact, have possession of the ball.

The rules were, as ever, simple: calling time when you don't have possession means the other team gets a penalty shot.

So, with just one second left in the game, the referees gave Australian star Ash Southern the ball. She whipped it past Armstrong. Just that fast, the game was tied. The horn sounded.

Onto overtime.

At the 2011 world championships in Shanghai, the Americans had finished sixth, their worst performance in over a decade. In the final game of that tournament, Australia had beaten the Americans for fifth place, 10-5.

To get to the Beijing final four years before, the Americans had defeated Australia in the semi, 9-8.

Now the Americans, seemingly on their way to the London final, were -- well, what?

"I just made the biggest mistake of my life," Krikorian said this week, recalling the moment, adding, "Immediately all these thoughts go through your head: 'I just cost my team the chance to play in the gold-medal game,' a dream they had been working toward for three or four years, some of them 12 years. There was a lot of battling inside my own head."

He added a moment later, "I typically pride myself on how I perform under pressure. This was something I had never experienced before. It was a bit overwhelming for me. I just remember being speechless. For once in my life, I didn't have anything to say. They came over to me in the huddle. I might have said a couple words. I mostly stared at them like I was looking at ghosts."

London Olympics - USA Water Polo Womens Press Conference

The time between regulation quarters is two minutes. Between regulation and overtime it's five minutes. There was still a lot of time left to go.

Krikorian looked at the clock -- 4:10 still to go until the whistle would blow to signal the start of overtime. He said, "It hit me like a ton of bricks. I had to get over it."

He called another huddle.

He said, "We are not going to let some stupid mistake by the coach affect the outcome of this game," explaining now, "I knew I had to say something that would immediately allow me to take responsibility for the mistake."

That plain. That simple. That elegant.

"That second meeting Adam had with us, bringing us all together, admitting, 'Guys, I made a mistake,' moving forward from that -- that showed all our team strength," said center Annika Dries, who is now 21 and playing both at Stanford and for the U.S. national team.

There really were no words thereafter: "The one thing I do remember is the eye contact I made with my teammates, the coaching staff, how determined we were and how there didn't even need to be words expressed: 'We got this. We are going to do this together.'

"I was swimming back and forth. I looked up at Adam and I just nodded. He knew and I knew that no matter what, we were in this together."

Attacker Courtney Mathewson, now 27, is also still on the U.S. national team. She had played for Krikorian at UCLA, graduating in 2008.

She said, "We knew he had made a mistake. But we make mistakes all the time. Everyone makes mistakes. This was our time to come together and prove to him that it was really just another bump in the road and we were going to get to where we wanted to be at the end.

"… We nodded. We looked each other in the eye. There was a little touch. We could feel the electricity within us at that moment. We could feel it was going to work out. We had done everything possible to prepare when things weren't going our way.

"After that second meeting, we could have been playing anybody at any time. But we knew. We were playing for each other and for Adam.

'And we dominated. It was straight domination."

Halfway through the first of the two three-minute overtimes, Maggie Steffens, then just 19, hit a skip shot. Then Kami Craig, who had also played on the 2008 Olympic team, hit from close range to make it 11-9.

That's how the game, finally, ended.

Two days later, the U.S. would defeat Spain, 8-5, for gold.

On Friday, amid the USOC's annual assembly in Colorado Springs, Colo., Krikorian will receive an award handed out each year since 1985, the USOC citing him for demonstrating "composure, crediting his players for showing resolve and making the best of a difficult situation."

"Ironically," he said, "for me what was unquestionably the worst mistake in my coaching career [turned out to be] my most rewarding moment," adding, "The culture I wanted to create, and dreamed of creating, was just staring at me in that intense moment. It was a great feeling, a very rewarding feeling."

He also said, "The thing I keep coming back to is as a coach you are in a position of influence. You have a unique opportunity to influence your athletes, your sport, your country, the Olympic Games. That provides a unique opportunity, a unique time to have an influence on the world, even if it's two seconds, five seconds, 10 seconds."

Ladies and gentlemen, particle physics may well be brutally difficult to explain. But in matters of team chemistry, it's easy: Adam Krikorian, winner of this year's Jack Kelly Fair Play Award.

Water polo: the start of the quest

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Over the past week, the U.S. women's water polo team has played Hungary in four exhibitions up and down the state of California, the Americans winning all four, the last a 9-4 victory Sunday that was way more physical than the final score would indicate before a happy, flag-waving crowd of about 1,000 people at Corona del Mar High School. Afterward, the American players signed autographs and posed for photos -- there were dozens and dozens of little girls in the crowd -- and, under a postcard-perfect Southern California sky, the NBC cameras beamed it all out on live TV.

It was, as Olympic send-offs go, about as good as it gets.

Three weeks from Monday, the U.S. team opens round-robin play at the 2012 Games against -- Hungary.

Since 2000, the Americans have done it all in water polo, won everything there is to win, except for Olympic gold.

This game Sunday was, in a sense, the beginning of the end of the journey. It was also, in a way, the start of the quest.

These four games against Hungary mean everything and nothing.

When the history of this U.S. team is written, no one is particularly apt to remember this four-game set. The Americans won the first game, last Monday, up in Palo Alto, 17-8; the second game, on the Fourth of July, back down in Southern California, at Los Alamitos, 14-8; and game three on Friday in San Diego, 7-6.

The games were all different. The Americans were ahead in some games, behind in others, and figured out a way to win all four games.

Along with the undeniable benefit of being on national TV -- that, ultimately, is the value of this series: they figured out a way to win.

Sunday's game was broken open early in the third quarter, when Maggie Steffens scored twice and Kami Craig once. What was once a tight game was suddenly 7-3.

But the revealing lesson in how smart this U.S. team can be came on the sequence that led to the next goal. With time winding down on the 30-second shot clock, Brenda Villa, who along with Heather Petri has played on every American Olympic team since 2000, fired a skip shot that left Hungarian goaltender Flora Bolonyai -- a current All-American at USC -- no option but to stop it in a way that it rolled out of play behind her. That gave the Americans the ball, and another 30 seconds. Elsie Windes got off another shot that led to another re-set -- which led, finally, to a goal by Kelly Rulon, making it 8-3 midway through the third.

"It's good to play a series of four games and good to be reminded of how quickly things can change," goalie Betsey Armstrong said, adding a moment later, "You have to remember to play your own game."

Until July 22, when they leave for London, the Americans will be practicing at their home base at Los Alamitos -- with one break. On Monday night, they're heading as a group to Las Vegas; on Tuesday, they're due to watch the U.S. men's basketball team practice and meet with head coach Mike Krzyzewski.

About a year ago, Rulon had bought Krzyzewski's 2009 book, "The Gold Standard," about the 2008 U.S. men's basketball team. It has since been widely read on the water polo team, coach Adam Krikorian said.

Krikorian, who coached at UCLA and knows the John Wooden story well, said that perhaps the U.S. women will glean some "words of wisdom or any kind of inspiration" from Krzyzewski.

Then again, this meeting might turn out to be a two-way street. Seven players on that men's basketball team will be Olympic newbies. They might want to hear what Brenda Villa and Heather Petri have to say, too.

"It's really cool," Petri said, "to feel this level of confidence that our teammates have right now. It's empowering us as well," meaning the two of them. "We felt it. We know what's ahead of us. To see them acknowledging it, and being empowered by it, is really exciting."

"It's our time"

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."

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.



Still no winner.

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.

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.

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."