Olympic water polo gets 2 first-time winners

Updated: August 13, 2012, 1:14 AM ET
Associated Press

LONDON -- For the first time in 12 years, Olympic water polo has a new king. There's a new queen, too.

Croatia captured its first gold medal in the men's game, bringing an end to three-time defending champion Hungary's domination of the sport since 2000. The U.S. women won the Olympic tournament for the first time, unseating 2008 champion the Netherlands.

Running up a perfect 8-0 record in London, a young Croatia team dominated the competition with a stingy defense anchored by goalkeeper Josip Pavic and a strong attack spearheaded by Sandro Sukno, Miho Boskovic and Niksa Dobud.

So how good was Croatia?

Ask Valentino Gallo, whose Italy team was unfortunate enough face the champion twice -- once in the group stage and again in Sunday's final -- and lost both times.

"They are strong in every facet of the game," he said. "They are the best team for sure. They win every match, every match easy."

With eight players under the age of 30, including Boskovic and Sukno, who netted 29 goals between them, the question is whether London could be the start of a new era of Croatian domination of the sport.

"This is the first," Croatia's Dobud said. "I hope it's not the only one."

As good as Croatia was, there are a handful of teams that aren't far behind -- obviously silver medalist Italy and bronze-winner Serbia, but also Montenegro and Hungary.

But Hungary, which lost to Italy in the quarterfinals before eventually finishing fifth, faces a tough rebuilding period in the next few years with its golden generation hanging up its caps.

The players who formed the core of the team that led Hungary to the 2000, 2004 and 2008 Olympic titles -- Tamas Kasas, Peter Biros, Zoltan Szesci and Gergely Kiss -- closed their international careers in London.

"This is the end of my era," Szesci said. "A new generation will come."

For some of the Hungarians, it appeared to be a relief to finally be done with it all.

"Last twenty years I played matches where everybody expected always to win and expected me to win and play well so this part, I say enough, I don't want it," the 36-year-old Kasas said. "It was too much and so I'm OK now."

A traditional power in the sport, Hungary has won a record nine Olympic titles. Even by those lofty standards, this generation was exceptional.

Kiss, at least, isn't worried about the future.

"Hungary will have a good team as long as water polo exists," he said. "Daniel Varga, Denes Varga, Norbert Hosnyanszky, they will stay and they will be the older generation."

As disappointing as London was for Hungary, it was an outright failure for the United States.

The 2008 silver medalists came entered the Olympics with hopes of winning the Americans' first water polo gold since 1904. Instead, the U.S. closed play in London with five straight losses to drop to eighth place.

"Not a very good way to finish, for sure," coach Terry Schroeder said.

Like Hungary, the U.S. will lose much of its veteran core, including four-time Olympian Ryan Bailey and three-time Olympian Adam Wright, to retirement, forcing the program to rebuild.

"I think most of the guys will go, maybe two or three will stay -- myself, the centers, probably the two young kids and that's about it," 31-year-old captain Tony Azevedo said. "It's good, it's time. ... This team has just been amazing together, done things the U.S. hasn't done in 20-25 years and put water polo back on the map in the United States, and you can't forget that."

What may have put the sport on the map in the U.S. above all is the women's team.

Long a power in the sport, the Americans had won two silvers and a bronze at the Olympics since the women's game debuted in 2000, but never gold -- until now.

In London, the Americans had the perfect mix of veterans and youth, with 19-year-old Maggie Steffens scoring a tournament-leading 21 goals and two-time Olympian Betsey Armstrong sparkling in goal.

The only blemish on their record was a 9-9 draw against Spain in the preliminary round, which they corrected by beating the Spanish in the final.

The win has thrown the spotlight on the women -- and the sport.

The women already have run the gauntlet of talk shows, with the whole team appearing on NBC's "Today" show, and some of the players on "NBC Nightly News" and "Good Morning America."

Perhaps most importantly, with veterans Brenda Villa and Heather Petri, who have appeared at every Olympics for the U.S. since 2000, retiring from the game, the team appears to have a bright future with young stars like Melissa Seidemann, Courtney Mathewson, Elsie Windes, Kami Craig and, above all, Steffens.

She scored seven goals in her Olympic debut to open the tournament, then capped an impressive two weeks in London with five more in the final.

Now, with a gold medal in her back pocket, she heads off to Stanford in the fall for her freshman year of college.

"Now water polo's over and I can focus on school," Steffens said.

Spain also comes away a winner, leaving with a silver in the country's first-ever appearance in women's Olympic water polo.

Coach Miguel Oca's team is full of young talent, including 19-year-old Anni Espar Llaquet, who scored 15 goals in London.

"This is a historic achievement," Oca said. "This is our first Olympic Games and we have won the silver medal."


Ryan Lucas can be reached on Twitter at www.twitter.com/relucasz

Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press

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