London 2012: 5 Reasons the US Women's Water Polo Team Will Win Gold
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If timing, hard work, perseverance and dealing with adversity mean anything in sports, then expect to see the U.S. Women's Water Polo atop the gold medal stand August 9 in London.
Head Coach Adam Krikorian, a former UCLA standout in water polo who captained the Men's NCAA championship team his senior year in 1995, feels he may have his best group of 13 women since taking over the reins of Team USA in 2009.
Water polo may not get the attention of the swimmers and divers, but every four years a worldwide audience tunes in to see some of the most fierce competition in a swimming pool. The U.S. Women's team has extra motivation heading into London: though it has won a number of gold medals at other events, it has yet to capture gold in the Olympics.
Krikorian has put together a squad that is a healthy mix of seasoned veterans and young, energetic stars in the making. The U.S. will battle it out amongst seven other countries over a two week period beginning on July 30 at the gorgeous new aquatic center in London.
There are at least five reasons why this particular team will take the gold this time. Put on your best red, white and blue, and take a look—you'll want to follow these overachievers as they fight their way to Olympic gold.
Howard Ruben is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained first-hand.
5. Winning Starts with Defense and Great Goaltending
Betsey Armstrong brings size and speed to her position
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Betsey Armstrong is considered among the best goalkeepers in the world.
The 6'1" native of Ann Arbor, Michigan—and graduate of the university there—posted 28 saves in helping her team win the gold medal at the 2011 Pan American Games. That victory also put Team USA into the final eight for Olympic competition in London.
Other defenders with stellar credentials for Team USA include Jessica Steffens, a 6-footer who came back strong in 2011 after having shoulder surgery the year before. Steffens was part of the gold medal winning team at the Pan American Games last year and is considered an excellent defender.
Steffens also scored 17 goals her senior year (2009) at Stanford.
Elsie Windes, Melissa Seidemann and young Maggie Steffens (Jessica's sister and a freshman at Stanford) are all superb defenders who enable Team USA's offense to generate opportunities. Windes won a silver medal with Team USA at the 2008 Summer Games in Bejing.
4. Veteran Leadership: This Team Has the Experience of Winning and Losing
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Veteran players like 6'3" All-Around Lauren Wenger are critical to the success of Team USA.
Considered one of the most versatile stars in the sport, Wenger can play virtually every position except goalkeeper and is a force with the ball in her hands.
The 28-year-old former USC Trojan anchors a veteran team and is the tallest member of the squad. She had nine goals in Team USA's run to the gold at the Pan American Games and is a silver medalist from Bejing.
At 5'4" and 32 years old, Brenda Villa has the distinction of being both the shortest and oldest member of Team USA—she also is the world's most decorated athlete in women's water polo, having competed in and won silver at Sydney (2000) and Bejing (2008) and taking home the bronze in Athens in 2004.
Villa has been a member of the U.S. National Team since 1996 and is a second coach in the water for the U.S. Women. She's confident heading into the London Games.
Asked about this team at a Los Angeles press conference in May, Villa sounded like the leader she has been:
We're not taking anything for granted, but we think our chances (in London) are really good. We're a great mix of experience and youth. We know it's a long (two weeks) tournament. We have to respect our opponents and focus on what we need to do which is pass the ball, make good saves and play good water polo.
3. Team USA Is Hungry for Gold: They Have Never Won
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Team USA has won a lot of championships since 2000 but never a gold at the Olympics.
Coach Adam Krikorian is used to winning titles—both as a player and a coach. He's instilled that mentality in the women's team as it prepares for the Games in London.
When we're focused and in sync," says Krikorian, "we're pretty tough to beat. This group has been challenged physically, mentally and emotionally. And any time this group has been faced with adversity, they have always risen to the occasions.
Probably the biggest challenge the team faced was after finishing a disappointing sixth at the FINA World Championships in Shanghai, China last year. It marked the first time the U.S. failed to reach the medal round since the 2006 FINA World Cup.
The team had the wherewithal to rebound, and at the Pan American Games (later in the year) they won the gold medal by defeating Canada, 27-26 in an incredible, 20-round shootout victory.
2. Momentum: Team USA Hoping Gold at Pan Am Games Is Stepping Stone to London
Veterans like Heather Petri are at the top of their game now
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It's probably a good thing that after winning six golds in six world competitions, the U.S. Women's National Team laid a big egg in China last year and finished sixth.
That disappointment served as inspiration and the team later went on to win the Pan American Games in dramatic fashion. Both competitions are fresh in their minds, and that should bode well for London.
Players like Heather Petri, the senior member at 34, helped spark the big win in Mexico, scoring four goals and playing outstanding defense.
The team got big contributions from most of their key players so they are coming into the Olympics brimming with confidence, yet, thanks to their humbling loss in China, they are nowhere close to being cocky.
Says Krikorian: "We learned at the World Championships how not to deal with adversity. But two months later we won gold at the Pan Am Games in one of the greatest finals ever.
Krikorian thinks any of the eight teams entered at the Olympics could take the gold—that includes Team USA's first-round opponent, Hungary.
The U.S. will also meet Spain and China in preliminary rounds before the quarterfinals on August 5. The second group of four includes Italy, Great Britain, Russia and Australia.
1. Coaching: Adam Krikorian Is a Big Time Winner with the Right Attitude
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Adam Krikorian became head coach of Team USA in March of 2009. Since that time, his teams have captured six of seven gold medals in international competition, with the sixth place finish at the World's last year the only blemish.
Krikorian was a standout on the UCLA varsity water polo team from 1992-95. He was captain of the Bruins 1995 NCAA Championship team. This coach knows how to win and what it takes as a player to make it happen.
Of his current crop of 13 on the women's team, Krikorian told members of the press in May that "we are very deep. We don't rely on one or two players. We have 13 who, on any given day, can step up and beat you. I think that makes it very difficult for an opposing coach to prepare for you."
Krikorian has been training his players hard over the past 60 days as he prepares them for their two weeks in London beginning on July 30 against Hungary. He even took the team to Coronado in San Diego for a day of training with the famous Navy Seals.
This is a coach with an impeccable resume: he's won National Women's Water Polo Coach of the Year honors five times and was the National Men's Coach of the Year in 2004 after leading the UCLA program to its eighth overall NCAA title.
All the elements are in place for Team USA—outstanding coach, great mix of experience and youth, a dash of adversity to keep them hungry and a hunger to win that very first Olympic gold medal.
It all looks good on paper—let's see how it plays out in the water.