James O'Brien's Blog
If you turn your TV up as loud as it can go and stick your face up against it, you still won’t get an adequate idea of how loud it is where I’m sitting. If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll know that I’m in the water polo venue awaiting the start of the gold medal match of the women’s tournament. And, if you’ve been following this blog, you’ll know that this game is between Spain and the USA, and you’ll know that the USA has six NYAC members on its team. If you haven’t been following this blog, then you’re probably not reading this, either, so I won’t recap the whole thing. Suffice it to say, that this is a big day and there are a load of marbles at stake. All of them, in fact.
Gold is the Color
Thursday, August 9th
It is for this scenario that a lot of people at the NYAC (you know who you are) have been living for the last four years, since the USA and its cadre of NYAC members won silver medals in Beijing. That was a spectacular result, but athletes - Olympians - don’t like second place. So, with this game about to begin, the pressure, the noise and everybody’s blood pressure is rising.
The Australian team, which the US defeated in order to reach the gold medal round, has just finished it’s bronze medal match, prevailing over Hungary, in overtime, by one goal. That game was a flat out war from beginning to end. If the next one is anything like it, we may have to call in the bobbies. (Nobody calls them that any more, just so you know).
The game begins and it’s as if a jumbo jet just tore through the building. They measured the decibels at the women’s boxing this afternoon and said that it was louder than a jumbo taking off. I’d like them to come over here with that machine. It’s beyond deafening.
Spain is the more aggressive in the opening minutes, but US goalkeeper, Betsey Armstrong blocks a bullet that sends the momentum back to the Spanish goalmouth. Play goes end to end and it seems pretty cagey until Spain hammers one past Armstrong with just 90 seconds gone. You always want to be first to get one on the board. It gives you an advantage in more ways than just the score. The US responds with a goal that is disallowed. Play flies back to the US end and Armstrong blocks another one.
Now, the US assumes control, let’s fly with a shot - saved - then the same thing at the other end. This game is remarkably evenly-matched. Presumably, that’s how they both made it to this round. Finally, with 50 seconds left in the quarter, Maggie Steffens - sister of the NYAC’s Jessica - launches one in and the quarter ends even, at 1-1.
Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that there are way more USA fans here than there are Spanish. Or maybe it’s that the Americans are making more noise. It’s far easier to bellow U! S! A! than it is S! P! A! I! N!. I wonder what the fans from Indonesia chant.
The second quarter is under way - there are four, in case you were wondering, each of eight minutes duration - and Spain, again, takes command. After 45 seconds, Armstrong blocks a blistering Spanish shot, but it bounces down and in. Now it’s 2-1 in the wrong direction. At least, it is until a lovely looping lob from Lois Lane.....sorry, Heather Petri (alliteration always get the better of me) sets things right again at 2-2. This is Petri’s fourth Olympic Games; she’s never failed to win a medal. She’s the person that you want on your team.
With 90 seconds gone, Maggie Steffens intercepts a beautiful cross and slams it home. Now it’s 3-2 and I’m starting to like this. Ninety seconds later, there’s another one on the board and you’ve never seen a man smile as wide as Adam Kirkorian. He’s the US coach and he’s patrolling poolside like a panther. (More alliteration).
Now we’re starting to talk business. Steffens the Assassin hammers another one home, 5-2, and Spain calls a time out. I don’t blame them. There are some worried looking Iberian faces over there. Play goes end to end, with some very nice set pieces at both ends. What goes on under the water is not so nice; but, that’s another story. Quite often, players disappear, submerged for no evident reason. They usually resurface. Usually.
With 10 seconds remaining in the quarter, Armstrong blocks a shot that would have decapitated Mike Tyson, ending the half at 5-2. It’s difficult to believe that anybody can levitate out of the water like Betsey Armstrong. When that ball comes her way, she rises like a phoenix. Except she’s only on fire figuratively.
As the second half begins, this game is far from decided. (And as the second half begins, Usain Bolt is settling into his blocks for the 200m final. I’m trying to watch that on the BBC’s iPlayer while also following this game. Not easy. But these are the Games, so I’m going for the gold. As did Bolt. Me and him have a lot in common, it seems. He won in 19.32 and is now doing push-ups on the track). As he does, the US women earn a penalty and put another one on the board, 6-2. It’s worth noting that this is Spain’s first time at the Olympic Games. That’s like taking up sprinting just this year and making the Olympic 100m semi-finals. (One of the Brits did that, by the way).
A backwards shot from Spain almost gets by Armstrong, but I almost won a Pulitzer. Almost doesn’t count. At the other end, Brenda Villa sends in a monster from 15 meters out and now it’s 7-2 with four minutes left in the quarter. As the game proceeds, you can see where the difference lies. When the US gets the ball, its set pieces are smooth and its shots are powerful and deadly accurate. Spain has a mountain of skill, but not the accuracy. In an Olympic final, you need to arrive with everything in your arsenal.
Two minutes remaining and Spain calls a time out. “A Little Less Conversation” strikes up (Elvis. I know you knew that), as it always does, and I still think it’s only me who gets the joke. Spain gets the ball on the re-start, sends in a shot, but it’s not clean, and Armstrong deflects. It’s obvious why she was voted the world’s number one in 2010. Kirkorian is waving and gesticulating and yelling from poolside, but you’ve got to wonder if any of his team can see or hear him. Anyway, the quarter ends, so now he can just tell them close up. He looks like Adam Sandler. Or Ben Stiller. I can never keep straight which is which. Like Starsky and Hutch. (Ref: yesterday’s blog).
OK, there’s one quarter to go, the score is 7-2 in a direction we’re all happy about, providing you’re not Spanish, and here we go again. The final quarter, eight minutes to.... Wait, a penalty to Spain. Bloody hell fire. Wassup with this? The shot! The save! I totally love Betsey Armstrong. I don’t mind saying it. She blocks it, sends it upstream and there’s another score on the board: 8-2. I’m going deaf. I wonder if Betsey likes blokes who are hard of hearing.
No way is Spain rolling over, though. They gather in the US half and send one through that even Armstrong can’t stop. So, now it’s 8-3. In water polo, things can change in a heartbeat. That’s part of its beauty. But the US takes possession and applies pressure in the Spanish goalmouth. Two shots are blocked, though, and now we’re back at the wrong end. Spain gets another one through. Four minutes remaining and it’s 8-4. I don’t bite my nails or smoke, but I might.
Spain has got a powerful momentum. They hammer two shots off the crossbar before the US defense clears the ball to the other end. Less than three minutes remaining and the US is struggling to retain control. Spain has been a giant killer throughout this tournament. They fire off another rocket which Armstrong stops, then the US calls its first time out. I’d love to know what Kirkorian tells them, beyond “Score some more goals. Please.”
Plays kicks off again. There are less than two minutes on the clock. The US is moving the ball around, keeping possession in the Spanish goalmouth, slowing things down. With 60 seconds remaining, though, Spain ploughs to the other end and blasts one home. Now it’s 8-5. Fifty seconds left. Is it over? Never, ‘til it’s over. Twenty five. Play is in the US half. One more Spanish shot. Off the post. Now it’s over. There’s bedlam. Everybody’s in the pool. I can see Tommy Lynch. He’s as close to poolside as he can get without diving in. I say, go for it.
The final score is 8-5, plus a clutch of Olympic gold medals. The ceremony will be starting soon. They do it right here, while the crowd is still gathered, as they should. Not one person has left. The place is a heaving, celebrating cauldron. Even the Spanish fans, as they should. It was a glorious game that nobody here will ever forget. Including me.
The chants of U! S! A! are resounding louder than ever. This will go on for a while.