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Tough bracket will test fit Team USA squad

8/14/2004

ATHENS, Greece -- Wolf Wigo figures he has never seen or heard
of any group of athletes in better physical shape than his own U.S.
water polo team at the Athens Games.

"We're better trained than any team, I think, than any sport
has ever been -- for anything,'' said Wigo, who starts in his third
Olympics Sunday against Croatia.

"I can't imagine anyone training'' more, he said. "All we do
is eat, sleep, train and recover. That's what I dream about at
night, do every day. Everyone is fully committed.''

The 31-year-old Wigo was so intent on recouping some gain from
all the pain he has endured under coach Ratko Rudic's training that
he has risked missing the birth of his first child to chase a medal
in Greece.

His wife, Barbara, is due to give birth to a baby girl on Aug.
30 -- the day after the men's water polo final.

"We've told the baby to wait,'' he said. "The due date is the
day I get home, so it's a 50-50 chance,'' said Wigo, who also is
going into the tournament with a perforated eardrum.

The U.S. team hasn't won an Olympic medal in men's water polo
since taking silver at Seoul in 1988, when Rudic guided Yugoslavia
to the gold.

Rudic, who won Olympic gold as a player for Yugoslavia and three
consecutive Olympic gold medals as coach (two with the former
Yugoslavia, one with Italy) between 1984-92, was hired as head
coach of the U.S. team in 2001.

He introduced his famed conditioning methods and his
single-minded management style immediately.

From an initial squad of about 25, he has honed 13 players to peak
for the Olympics.

That has meant training up to 10 hours a day, including some match
days, to ensure that anything the Americans lack in skill they can
make up for with fitness and strength.

"The advantage is ... we'll go out being physical, trying to
tire the other team out,'' Wigo said. "We know that if both teams
are tired, we're going to be better off than they are. And that'll
be from the first game to the last at the Olympics.''

Wigo, who played two seasons as a pro in the Greek league, said
this U.S. team has no more talent than the Atlanta or Sydney squads
he was on, but is more fit and professional.

"That's what Ratko really brought to us. Because in the U.S.,
people would have jobs and work around it,'' he said. "We'd still
be training really hard, but now water polo is all we do, 100
percent.''

Slipping back into the pool Saturday for a final practice
session was a little painful on the ear, but no deterrent to
playing, Wigo said. He got a knee in the right ear training earlier
in the week and a specialist confirmed a burst ear drum.

"The pain was so bad, it was like a drill going into my head,''
said Wigo, who practiced with cotton and petroleum jelly in his ear
plus tape and a cap covering that.

Usually you're supposed to completely be out of the water for
10 days. In this circumstance, you can't do that. No matter what
the pain, I'm going to play.''

Besides, it can't hurt more than the practice sessions.

The Americans are in a tough bracket with defending Olympic and
world champion Hungary, No. 3 Serbia-Montenegro, Russia, Croatia
and Kazakhstan.

Italy, a finalist at the last world championships, is in the
other group with 1996 Olympic champion Spain, Australia, Germany,
Greece and Egypt.

The top three teams from each group advance to the playoffs.

The United States is 4-3 against Croatia since 2002, including a
12-11 win in a shootout Aug. 6 in the semifinals at the Belgrade
Trophy Tournament.

Hungary opens Sunday against Serbia-Montenegro and Italy plays
against Spain.

The women's competition starts Monday, with the world-champion
Americans against Hungary and defending Olympic gold-medalist
Australia against Italy.