U.S. Women's Water Polo Is the Toughest Team at the Olympics

The U.S. girls’s water polo group gained Olympic championships in London and Rio. A one-year extend of the Tokyo Video games simply gave them extra time to toughen.

TOKYO — There may be by no means a scarcity of robust American groups heading to the Olympics. The ladies’s basketball group has gained six consecutive gold medals, and the boys’s group 3 in a row. The bigger-than-life personalities at the International Cup-winning girls’s football group have captured the inside track media highlight, and the ladies’s gymnastics group, led by way of Simone Biles, is a heavy favourite in Tokyo.

However one of the most best possible United States squads is one you will have by no means observed: the U.S. girls’s water polo group.

The group gained the Olympic championship in 2012 and 2016. And the final 3 international championships. And the final 3 international cups, the final six International Leagues and the final 5 Pan American Video games. Between the 2016 and 2020 Olympics, if truth be told, the group gained 128 video games, whilst shedding best 3.

And the American citizens don’t simply win their video games, they dominate in them. The USA beat Italy within the 2016 Olympics, 12-Five, and thumped Spain within the final two international championships, 11-6 and 13-6. And the ones have been the finals. In initial rounds, 20-goal victories don’t seem to be atypical.

On Saturday, they were given their Olympic Video games began with a 25-Four win over Japan. Even if the U.S. does stutter, it most often doesn’t final lengthy: On Monday, the group used to be tied with China, 6-6, at halftime. China best controlled yet another target, despite the fact that, and the U.S. pulled away to win very easily, 12-7.

Even their fighters recognize their transparent superiority. “I think commemorated as a result of it’s my first Olympic recreation, and we performed it with the USA, which is the most powerful on the planet,” Yumi Arima of Japan stated after Saturday’s demolition.

Deep and gifted, the U.S. group boasts two true superstars. Maggie Steffens, 28, the captain, is possibly the most productive girls’s participant on the planet, the scorer of essentially the most objectives and the winner of most beneficial participant honors at each the London and Rio Video games. Her teammate Ashleigh Johnson, 26, could be the sector’s best possible goalkeeper. The primary Black girl to play at the American group, she had the highest save share in her first Olympic Video games, in 2016.

She could also be a geographical exception: Whilst, as a bunch, the gamers are most commonly Californians, Johnson is a Floridian who become a first-team all-American at Princeton. “I’m an intruder in a large number of techniques,” she stated. “Water polo isn’t a highly regarded recreation in Miami.”

What Johnson and all of her teammates have, despite the fact that, is the type of multidimensional intelligence this is essential of their tactical, fast-shifting recreation.

“You’re taking part in 3 video games with regards to water polo,” stated Steffens, who has undergraduate and grasp’s levels from Stanford. “You’re taking part in the overwater recreation, that enthusiasts can see. You’re taking part in the underwater recreation that no person can see — it’s a must to be calm whilst underwater there’s all this chaos.

“And the 3rd is the psychological recreation: psychological toughness, resilience, but additionally intelligence. Water polo is sort of a transferring chess board. Each and every time you assume you’ve solved the issue, there’s any other transferring piece.”

In maximum years, the USA measures itself in opposition to an ordinary that few of its opponents ever method. However over the last 12 months, it will have received an surprising get pleasure from the disruptions brought about by way of the coronavirus pandemic.

Most often, the USA girls get in combination best in summers, and for 15 months resulting in an Olympics. This time, since the Tokyo Video games have been behind schedule for a 12 months, 15 months became to 27.

That roughly prolonged togetherness has created a 6th sense a number of the gamers, Johnson stated. “If you’ll await and skim what your teammate is planning on doing, and meet them the place they’re, ahead of they get there, that’s an enormous benefit,” she stated. “Moments when possibly they’re suffering, and you’ll step in and lend a hand, that simply builds a intensity of agree with. It’s in point of fact exhausting to play in opposition to that.

“In case your group is a bunch of six or seven girls who can act as one, then you definately could be unstoppable. That’s beautiful cool.”

Can this 12 months’s group lose? The pandemic has resulted in disadvantages, too, as video games in opposition to world opposition had been postponed and canceled. That suggests the USA performed best 4 world video games in 2020. On account of that, there is also issues about fighters that the American gamers merely have no idea, and gained’t know till they’re within the water in combination.

“The adventure has been a little rocky,” stated Trainer Adam Krikorian, who additionally led the USA in London and Rio. “It’s labored in opposition to us now and then. It’s difficult whilst you’re simply competing in opposition to every different.”

Because the watch for Tokyo went on and on, despite the fact that, even his tremendous group risked shedding its edge. Krikorian said that all over the pandemic he occasionally had hassle motivating the gamers, a few of whom had put their lives on cling to coach for the Video games, after which been requested to take action once more. A number of individuals of the group are smartly into their 2d decade of elite pageant.

“Consistency and camaraderie can result in complacency,” he stated. “All people having struggled over motivation, particularly over the past 15, 16 months.

“Upload to that, we’ve had such a lot luck, and it’s herbal for us to loosen up a bit bit. One among my major duties is to stay this group on edge. I’m blessed in that they’re extremely aggressive, so it doesn’t take a complete lot to get them going.”

Steffens stated she motivated herself by way of surroundings apart her two earlier gold medals. “Our group this 12 months — that group hasn’t ever gained an Olympic gold medal,” she stated.

Acknowledging that the group’s early video games would possibly come with blowouts, and much more alternatives for the group to let down its guard, Johnson stated she and the opposite gamers had mentioned focusing no longer at the scoreboard however at the recreation plan, and at the smaller battles and victories, regardless of the rating.

“Each and every form of recreation has its personal little psychological struggle,” she stated. “When there’s an enormous rating disparity, it’s no longer essentially reflective of the group. We’re having a look at the most productive gear of the opposite group, and seeking to take the ones away.”

Stated Krikorian: “I’m going into each and every recreation pondering that there’s a superb opportunity we would possibly lose. That permits me to stick targeted. I wish to assume there’s a trickle-down impact.”

If there’s a group that could possibly fit the USA in Tokyo, it may well be Australia, the one opponent to defeat the USA for the reason that Rio Video games. The U.S. gamers and coaches pointed to the physicality of the Australians, in addition to the veteran management of Bronwen Knox, who can be taking part in in her fourth Olympics.

However even that contention has rarely been an in depth pageant: In 22 encounters in opposition to Australia since Rio, the U.S. is 19-Three.

Till they’re knocked off their perch, the U.S. stars are ready to tackle all comers. They know, they stated, that it’s the best method the game they lately dominate will develop.

“South Africa, that is their first time,” Steffens stated of alternative doable new opponents. “Once they pass house, wager what the little ladies can really feel? They are saying, ‘I will beat her, I will pass to the Olympics at some point.’ That’s what’s going to develop the game, particularly for ladies.

“I take into accounts Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, one of the most powerhouses of guys’s water polo. Why can’t they be powerhouses of ladies’s water polo?”

And regardless of their very own group’s file of luck, the gamers know the USA has room to develop, too.

“Water polo is targeted in California,” stated Johnson, the Princeton graduate from Miami. “There may be such a lot untapped ability within the U.S. that has but to be observed. We would like the entire best possible to be representing our recreation.”

If that occurs, consider how excellent the U.S. group can be.

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