AFTER 50 YEARS of failure in the final minutes, the U.S. men's water polo team finally won a game in the last second. In dispatching perennial power Croatia 7--6 on a buzzer-beating shot by Tony Azevedo, the U.S. got a good start on winning its first medal since 1988. For the players it was also evident that their hellish training regimen of the past three years (SI, Aug. 16) was paying off. Under new coach Ratko Rudic, who coached his native Yugoslavia to two Olympic gold medals and Italy to one, the U.S. athletes have endured crushing 11-hour days of swimming, weightlifting and drills that Azevedo estimates is twice the workload of any other team. Asked to describe the last four months, Azevedo said, simply, "Terrible."
Sunday, by contrast, was exhilarating. Croatia, after trailing by three goals for much of the second and third quarters, tied the game at six with 26 seconds remaining. After Azevedo's goal at the buzzer--his third of the game--he still had the strength to pump his fist and scream. After all, it was one of the first international matches the U.S. had played without a grueling practice immediately beforehand. "For the first half I felt like I was walking on water," said U.S. goalie Brandon Brooks. "All of the emotions of the last four years came to the surface." -- Kelli Anderson