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If you look only at the team results—six games, six victories—you would be tempted to say the Americans' gold medal run was a tour de force against overmatched competition. You would be wrong. Instead this team was a case study in resilience. The tone was set from the Americans' first game, when they fell behind 2--0 to France in the opening 15 minutes before storming back to win 4--2. This was not your mother's U.S. women's squad, destroying everything in its path, but it was a more entertaining one.
Consider the semifinal against Canada, one of the greatest soccer games of all time. Three times Canada took the lead through its transcendent scorer, Christine Sinclair, and three times the U.S. stormed back, twice on goals by Megan Rapinoe. There was a bit of everything that night at Manchester's fabled Old Trafford—including an unusual time-wasting call on the Canada goalkeeper that led to the U.S.'s third goal—until Alex Morgan headed home the game-winner in the closing moments of extra time for a 4--3 victory. No such epic drama was needed in the gold medal game, a 2--1 win over Japan, but that too was a comeback of sorts, as the U.S. avenged its bitter defeat from the 2011 World Cup final. Nothing came easily for these women, who showed the mettle to earn a place alongside the great U.S. teams of Mia Hamm and Michelle Akers.
Brenda Villa, Water Polo
Shortly before the last match of the 2012 Olympics, Rosario Villa pulled her daughter aside. "Regardless of what happens today, you need to be happy for what you accomplished," she told Brenda. Rosario had witnessed the disappointment after her daughter's three previous trips to the Olympics ended with silver (twice) and bronze. After the team's second-place finish in Beijing, in which the Americans gave up the winning goal to the Netherlands with 26 seconds remaining, Villa, FINA magazine's female player of the decade for the years 2000 through '09, shelved retirement plans and committed to one last chance to win gold.
Villa struggled to adjust to a new coach (Adam Krikorian took over in '09) and to an influx of collegiate players who created a generational divide on the team, and she contemplated quitting. But buoyed by the persistence modeled by her parents, Mexican immigrants who toiled in garment factories near their Commerce, Calif., home, Villa pressed on. As the team's captain she imparted the lessons of her parents to younger players such Maggie Steffens, 19, whose tournament-high 21 goals powered the team to an 8--5 win over Spain in the final. From atop the medal stand Villa understood what her mother was telling her the week before the finals: It's not all about winning. But going out on top sure feels good.