Elsie Windes

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."

A band of sisters on the road to making history

It's not that Lolo Silver wasn't already a world-class athlete and in what the rest of us mere mortals would consider great shape. Among her many accomplishments, she was the leading scorer for the winning U.S. women's water polo team last summer at the FINA World Cup, with 11 goals. Then again, the American women's head coach, Adam Krikorian, had promised the U.S. women that over the course of this winter, water polo's off-season, they would -- at his direction -- come to know what it was like to get in amazingly, ridiculously phenomenal shape.

Water polo demands ferocious mental will.  That mental edge is rooted in physical toughness. It's at once that simple and that complex.

The U.S. women's water polo team has won virtually everything it could win over the past decade -- with one exception, Olympic gold.

At the close of the 2010 season, the U.S. women were the No. 1 team in the world. To be atop the podium at the close of the 2012 London Olympics, however -- that is the manifest goal, and that's why Krikorian undertook at the start of 2011 a studied journey to take this team where it has never gone before.

It is, indeed, a journey. It can't be anything but. It's essentially a new team, a younger team and -- let there be no doubt -- Krikorian's team.

Which means it's of necessity going to be a long and winding journey. And a compelling study in both coach and team dynamic.

In sports, there can be no guarantee of anything. Beyond which, water polo is just too hard. If anyone in the American camp needs a vivid reminder of how hard, there is always Sydney and 2000 for a reminder -- one goal shy, just one very late goal, from gold.

That said: Krikorian, who came to the U.S. team from UCLA, is quietly but assuredly confident in himself and his means. The players have seemingly bought into his program.  Already, there is about this U.S. women's team a buzz, a feeling, a hard-to-describe sense that they are a band of sisters on the road to making history.

Perhaps the rest of the world doesn't know it yet.

But they do.

"Definitely," Lolo Silver said at practice this past Friday at their home base, a military base -- for real -- at Los Alamitos, Calif.

"We have all been pushed past anything -- pushed mentally and physically past anything we thought possible. Even the girls who have been to previous Olympics haven't had this sort of training this far away from the Olympics.  It has us focused and it has us getting together and it has forming friendships that are going to last forever."

At the outset, Krikorian made plain that despite the team's many past successes every spot on the roster was up for grabs.

No one was guaranteed a spot -- not even Brenda Villa, arguably the team's marquee player over the past three Olympic Games. She, like everyone else, would have to earn her way onto the 2012 Olympic team.

"Brenda has done a good job. She has gotten herself in probably the best fitness level she has been in, in a very long time," Krikorian said as he monitored the team, split into squads of three doing catch-and-shoot drills in the Los Alamitos pool.

"She has put herself in a pretty good position at this point. But," he emphasized, "there's no out here that's guaranteed a spot."

Of course, Villa was not among the women in the pool that day. She was nine time zones away, in Italy, playing for her club team, Orizzonte -- though Krikorian and the other Americans had just come back from playing against her, in an exhibition in Italy, but also with her, in another exhibition, against a team in Holland.

For extra fun this week in Los Alamitos, several of the women had started wearing 7 1/2-pound weight belts during their morning practices. Understand -- that is, in the pool. They were swimming or treading water or doing those shooting drills wearing those belts.

"Those are our new little gifts," Lolo said.  "To help us improve our leg strength."

Over the course of the winter, practice started at 7 and ran until 10, running again from 1:30 in the afternoon until 4:30, with a variation in the schedule on Wednesdays, to break things up.

There was time for both basic conditioning and for strength training.

Over the course of the winter, in a 200-yard swim test, Silver shaved 40 seconds off her average time.

At that level -- that is a huge drop.

She was hardly, however, alone.

Elsie Windes, who scored five goals during the 2010 FINA World Cup, is also 40 seconds faster now.

She said, "I did things I thought I couldn't -- things you thought you couldn't do but you did, and with your teammates."

Tanya Gandy, a standout at UCLA and who joined the U.S. national team in 2009, who scored five goals at the 2010 FINA World League Super Final, cut a full minute off her time.

"I still think the clock was lying," Tanya said. "It was good to see -- I didn't think I could get that fast. and I can get faster. It's very motivating to know how far you can come and how you can be pushed. Every day you can be pushed. It's testing you. It's testing your mental state."

"Maybe," Lolo Silver said with a shy smile, referring to Adam Krikorian, "there's a method to the madness."