The U.S. women's water polo team knew that they faced a difficult battle for the gold medal against heavily favored Australia -- on Australia's home turf at the Sydney Games. Yet, with mere seconds remaining, the match was tied and appeared headed to overtime. Despite the odds, the United States still had hopes of winning the first women's water polo gold medal.
Then, a controversial penalty was called. Australia scored on the ensuing free shot to seal the match 4-3. With less than two seconds on the clock, the U.S. team's thoughts of gold sunk like lead.
"We went through the whole gamut of emotions," U.S. coach Guy Baker said. "My therapist says I'm in some form of acceptance now.
He is joking ... sort of.
Baker knows there is no guarantee the U.S. would have won in overtime. It was a great accomplishment for them to even make it that far. Still, at the time, the loss was crushing.
"It did sting," center Heather Moody said. "It was harder for some than others to get over. But honestly, we went in ranked sixth and came out second. There's nothing negative about a silver medal at the Olympics."
That attitude, along with her workhorse mentality, is precisely why Baker picked Moody, now a nine-year team veteran at age 30, as the team captain in 2001. Since then, they have set out make sure this U.S. team is prepared better than any other in the world. Even down to the final seconds.
Ever since 2000, time has been on their side. Officially added as an Olympic sport in October of 1997, the United States had just two years of part-time training to prepare for Sydney. This time, they have had a full four. Baker was hired as a full-time coach, so he could stop bouncing between his national team responsibilities and his job at UCLA. In the fall of 2002, the athletes went full time, as well. Those who were out of college, committed to living in or near Los Alamitos, Calif., where they trained six hours a day, five days a week. The younger team members moved to Los Alamitos a year later.
The U.S. women worked their way up from No. 8 in the world rankings in 1998 to world champions in 2003. Headed into Athens this summer, Team USA is favored along with Italy, Hungary, Russia and Canada.
"We were a close team in 2000, but we've really focused on trying to come together more and more," said Moody, who moved to Anaheim, Calif., from Green River, Wyo., to live with teammate Robin Beauregard.
While the athletes have focused on camaraderie, Baker's workouts have all but assured it.
"I tend to be pretty hard on them," said Baker, a self-proclaimed member of the Herb Brooks' school of coaching. "There can be a collective disdain for what I've just done to them, so I probably help create some negative form of bonding or something like that."
It's the support they lend one another during grueling workouts and long road trips that pays off come game time. The more they rely on each other, the less they depend on Baker; that independence is crucial in matches because Baker is often neither audible nor visible amidst the splashing and yelling.
"It's just the 13 of us that are in the water, so we can't be attached to [Baker]," Moody said.
Better yet, that bond has morphed into a genuine appreciation for one another.
"I don't think you could have a 100-percent successful team that doesn't like each other," Moody said.
Time also has given the team a chance to reap the benefits of growing development programs and a huge increase in the number of NCAA women's water polo programs. Of the 13-member 2004 team, seven competed in Sydney. The rest are fresh blood.
None is more fresh than 19-year-old Kelly Rulon. Originally from San Diego, Rulon took the winter and spring of her sophomore year at UCLA off for the chance to qualify for the Olympic team. She moved to Los Alamitos in December 2003, fairly certain the reigning world champions would not need her services, yet eager for the experience. But her athleticism, predilection for learning and magnetic personality landed her a very welcome spot on the team.
"I think the team needed some energy at that point and she brought it," Moody said. "These younger players bring in a completely new aspect of the sport and we feed on that fresh young energy to do what we need to do."
To be sure, this team is not headed to Athens with vengeance on their mind. In fact, Rulon wasn't even aware of what happened in Sydney until a year ago (she does admit, however, she was afraid to bring it up). But it's fair to say those who do remember have held on to the experience just enough to use it as motivation.
In many ways the water has, in fact, healed their wounds.
"We are focused on the journey and all of those clichés, but if we don't win, of course there will be some disappointment," he said. "And that's good. Because if you put everything into it, you should either be really bummed out at the end or really happy.
"Either way, it will mean we did it right."