The brutality of water polo is played out largely beneath the surface of the water, where the grabbing, clawing and general mayhem that takes place makes WWF Smackdown! look genteel. The women's Olympic competition wasn't exactly a tea party above the waterline, either, as U.S. center-forward Heather Moody found out when she took an accidental kick to the face in a semifinal match against the Netherlands last Friday and left blood in the pool as she made her way to the deck.
That blow, however, was nothing compared to the one the Americans suffered in the next night's gold medal game, which ended in confusion and controversy over a last-second goal that gave Australia a 4-3 victory and left the U.S. players stunned silver medalists. After America's Julie Swail fouled Australia's Yvette Higgins with 1.3 seconds to play, Higgins fired in the winning score to the delight of the raucous Aussie fans in the nearly full Aquatic Centre.
While the celebration raged around them, the disbelieving Americans bobbed in the water like corks for several minutes, hoping the goal would be disallowed. Under the impression that the foul had occurred less than seven meters from the net, the U.S. thought Higgins's shot was illegal because from inside that distance, Australia would have had to make at least one pass before taking a shot. An official from FINA, the sport's international governing body, issued a statement following the game saying that the foul occurred outside seven meters, which meant that Higgins could take a direct shot on goal. Even if that was the case, Higgins appeared to wave the ball above her head briefly before she shot, and the rules state that the shooting motion in that situation must be instant and uninterrupted.
"I don't want to get into the fact that it was a bad call," said U.S. center-forward Maureen O'Toole. "Both teams played great, and it was a classic, historic night for women's water polo."
On that point there could be no dispute. Women's water polo was making its debut as a medal sport exactly 100 years after the men's version was first played in the Olympics. Players from the U.S. and Australia had been part of the lobbying that had been going on for decades in an attempt to change the attitude of the IOC, which finally conferred Olympic status on the sport in 1997. Several Aussie players had met IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch's plane at the Sydney airport in '95 wearing swimsuits and holding signs of protest. "At one point the IOC even said that men's water polo already had a sister sport—synchronized swimming," says O'Toole. "Nothing against synchro, but I mean, hello?"
Perhaps it was the feeling of sisterhood created by that campaign that accounted for how gracious the Americans and the Australians were to one another after the final. The Americans refused to complain about the final call, and in the joint post-game press conference the Australian team twice applauded O'Toole, the 39-year-old icon of the sport who had played the final game of her career. "She's a living legend," Higgins said.
O'Toole will now return to the life she had before turning it upside down three years ago when she was coaching water polo at Cal, came out of retirement and moved from northern California to train with the team in Los Angeles. She flew back to the Bay Area on Fridays to spend the weekends with her daughter, Kelly, 8, who lived with O'Toole's parents. "I'm disappointed, but getting back to being a mom and having a normal schedule is a huge consolation," she said after the game, the silver medal dangling from her neck.
Two seats from O'Toole at the press conference, U.S. goalkeeper Bernice Orwig was having difficulty keeping an equally stiff upper lip. Her eyes were red and moist, and when she tried to answer a question, her voice quavered before she finally gave up, unable to speak. Still, she had a slight smile on her face. It was as if Orwig realized that even this heartache was part of the Olympic experience she and so many other women had fought for. They had left their blood in the water, and there was no disgrace in leaving their tears.