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James O'Brien's Blog

Clearing Up the Water

Tuesday, August 7th - Part 3

Back to the pool. In the second semi-final of the women's water polo competition, Spain prevailed over Hungary, meaning that they will face the USA in the final on Thursday.

And some clarification about that incident in the pool at the end of regulation time. With the US one goal up on Australia, the latter hammered a shot off the US crossbar, which bounced down to the water. At that point, and with just one second remaining, US coach, Adam Krikorian, called a time out. Big mistake. The US did not have possession, meaning an automatic penalty. The Aussies scored, sending the game into extra time. Thankfully, the US prevailed, setting up the final versus Spain. 

“I was feeling horrible,” Kirkorian told NBC. “There are thoughts that go through your mind: ‘Man, I might have blown this one.’ It's all a bit of a blur, but ultimately I made a big mistake. To be honest, after it happened, it took me a couple of minutes to take a deep breath and realize what I had done.” 

You’ve got to feel bad for the guy; but, Coach - no more drama. Please.

Between Good and Glory

Tuesday, August 7th - Part 2

From the pool to the track: a good time for an update. This morning, Julie Culley contested the preliminary rounds of the women’s 5000m. To her eternal credit, Julie made things perfunctory, something for which I will long be grateful. I don’t need any more stress. That said, it was hardly easy.

Running in the first heat, a race featuring the legendary Ethiopians Tirunesh Dibaba and Meseret Defar, Julie placed an automatically qualifying fifth, though in a monster personal best time of 15:05.38. Prior to this morning, Culley’s personal best was 15:13.77, a time she posted in winning the US Olympic Trials a few weeks back. With her run this morning, it’s clear that the NYAC woman is in the shape of her life. Right about now is a good time to be that. The women’s 5000m final takes place on Friday (August 10th) at 3:05pm, New York time. 
As I write this, the men’s high jump has started, with the NYAC’s Jamie Nieto in the fray. Eight years ago, Jamie placed fourth in this meet with the same height as the silver and bronze medalists. From that, you may deduce that Jamie is a big game performer. This being the biggest game of all, that should serve him well.

Clearances at 2.20m/7’ 2 1/2” and 2.25m/7’ 4 1/2” were no problem at all. At 2.29m/7’ 6”, his first attempt was a failure; but, the second was as smooth as silk. That moved him to 2.33m/7’ 7 3/4”, where things got decidedly more complicated. After two failures, he passed his next attempt. Meaning that, when the bar moved to the next height, he would have just one, all or nothing, shot. It was a good maneuver. One jump where everything clicked would put him in a medal position. To stay where he was and have one great jump would leave him right where he was with it all still to do at the next height.

The next height was 2.36m/7’ 8 3/4”. Had Jamie made it, it would have been a lifetime best. As it was, his final jump was flat and not close. A final back flip on the track was entertaining, but it left him in sixth place in this competition, a sterling performance, but no cigar. But that sixth place is far closer to the podium than it may appear. Jamie’s 2.29m clearance was the same height as the three - yes, three - bronze medalists. Had he cleared that height on his first attempt, as did those three, the IOC would have had to find four bronzes. But it took him two attempts  and that was the blemish that proved decisive. So it goes; the difference between good and glory is always a hair’s breadth.

Boiling Water

Tuesday, August 7th - Part 1

You can always tell when athletes are ready to perform well. They look happy. They’re relaxed, and they exude confidence. I’m at the water polo venue right now (again) and I’m looking at the US women’s team. with six NYAC players among its number. As they parade poolside, they look as though they are comfortable and relaxed and ready to do some serious damage.

Their opponent is Australia, and this is the semi-final of the women’s competition. If they win, they play for the gold medals. If they lose, they play for bronze against the losers of the other semi. But they’re smiling and relaxed and, obviously, ready to go. I just noticed a member of the Aussie team laughing like she had just heard the funniest joke of all time. (It’s probably the one about the crocodile sandwich*). I don’t like the look of that.

The crowd is as crazed as they always seem to be at water polo matches. It’s not a place for those of a sensitive disposition. Especially, if you’re an American: the Aussies have scored twice within the first couple of minutes. The ceiling billowed after the last one.

But it ain’t over ‘til it’s over, and this one ain’t even begun, yet. Relentless pressure pays off, and the US gets two back. Then, with nine seconds left in the quarter, Australia puts another one away.  So that’s how you want to play it? With two seconds remaining, Lauren Wenger blasts a torpedo into the Australian net, her second of the quarter. It’s 3-3 at the break and already I’m emotionally drained....in a very manly way, just so you know.

OK, part deux. The Australians come out blasting. Goalkeeper Betsey Armstrong saves a blistering shot and then gives a little sneer, as if to say, “That’s all you got?” I like that, the sneer. Then the US hammers one home, taking the lead for the first time, 4-3. But Australia responds quickly, as we might have known they would: 4-4. Oh, yeah? Here’s one for you: 5-4 USA. I would never claim to know much about water polo, but I’ve seen a fair number of games - none like this one.

As, I write this, a beautifully placed lob from Maggie Steffens, sister of the NYAC’s Jessica and the top scorer in this tournament, loops into the net, and now it’s 6-4. Australia won’t lie down, though. Now, it’s back to 6-5. I need a drink. A beautiful save by Armstrong, a punishing attack from the Australians, a road block defense by the US. And now a penalty to the US. Tension, the pounding music..and the keeper saves it. Cheers. Boos. The place is a madhouse. 

The US applies pressure. The Aussie keeper saves. The Aussies apply pressure. Armstrong saves. There’s a minute left in the quarter. The US hammers one off the uprights, but the play all stays in the Australian goal area. A long, powerful US shot is saved by the Australian goalkeeper - whose name, I just found out, is Victoria Brown - and the first half comes to an end with the US ahead 6-5. That Aussie keeper is playing a wonderful game. I don’t like her.

The third quarter begins - there were some intense conversations at half time - and Armstrong makes two nice saves within the first minute. No sneer now. She’s already made her case. As one player tries to strangle another in the water, the US calls a time-out, presumably to prevent a felony and to call some plays. Multi-tasking.

We’re three minutes into this quarter and no score. It’s not that things have become tactical; play is still all end to end. There are just fantastic blocks and saves at both ends of the pool. But Maggie Steffens is a shark in the water and, with a defender hanging around her neck, she curves one past Ms. Brown and it’s now 7-5. The bank of US fans across from me are in a paroxysm. I fear for the health of some of them. If one has a heart attack, no one’s going to call a medic until this game is over.

The Aussies pull one back from a set play, so now it’s 7-6. The US blocks another shot, then attacks; but, the clock runs out. Third quarter is over and this is not good for anybody’s blood pressure. 

As the fourth quarter is about the begin, the US team is lined up and ready to go before the Aussies are even all in the pool. I like that. Eager to take this game on. That’s what you want. You can fear victory or you can embrace it, go and meet it. It’s a choice.

Play barrels forward. A nice block from a US defender. Beautiful save by Armstrong. Play lashes towards the Aussie end. Jessica Steffens lets loose with a howitzer that the net can barely contain. Now it’s 8-6. Play heads back to the other end. Some set plays, and a looping shot that Armstrong just can’t get to. 8-7. Less than four minutes left in this game and it’s still all TBD in a big way.

Some nice defensive play repels an Aussie attack. Now it’s all upstream to the other end, but a wasted shot loses possession and now we’re back in the US half. That’s a fateful drift. A backwards, over the shoulder throw goes into the net. But that’s illegal. Disallowed. Even so, it makes a dent in the US momentum and, seconds later, the Aussies send a legal one in. Now it’s even, 8-8, and only two minutes to go.

OK, now 1:40 to go and the US scores again. 9-8. When they're at the All Sports Dinner, I’m going to tell these women to stop doing this to me. Armstrong repels a blistering long shot. One minute to go. It’s all to be played for. The chants of U! S! A! are deafening. Australia calls a time out, as you would expect, and I can take some very deep breaths. There are 43 seconds left on the clock; 43 veryveryvery long seconds. 

Australia attacks. Fifteen seconds to go. Armstrong blocks a canon. The Aussies get the ball with three seconds left and launch a shot that hammers off the cross bar and back into the water. To me it looks like no-goal. But there’s an infraction. There’s one second one the clock and the referees are conferring. The tension could boil the water. One US player has blood streaming from her nose. It’s a penalty! One second to go. The shooter lines up opposite Armstrong. Shoots. Scores. 9-9 at full-time.
I’m not sure I can keep doing this. Now, we face two periods of extra time. From the start, this has been a game of fever pitch intensity. Now, they have to do it all over again.

Play begins. Australia attacks, but they can’t get past Armstrong. The US ball handling is superb. A blistering US shot goes over the bar, but they keep possession and the next one goes in. Now it’s 10-9. Play moves to the US end, but Armstrong deflects another looping, dangerous ball and the danger passes, for the moment. Play moves back to the Aussie half and, with three seconds left, America scores one more. Now, it’s 11-9. Time for a quick prayer before the sixth quarter begins. (Yes, I know you can’t have six quarters. We can talk about this later.)

Three minutes remaining and play begins. If it’s still tied, it will go to penalties. If that happens, I’m leaving. Great defensive play by the US repulses a strong Aussie attack. Back to the Australian end. Back to the US end. One minute remaining. Australia calls a time out. The US is two goals up; but, in water polo, everything can change at the last minute. It’s way too early to start breathing.

Play re-commences. A powerful Aussie shot goes wide and now there’s less than 20 seconds left. The clock runs out. The US wins, 11-9. The crowd goes absolutely totally ballistic. I slump onto the desk. Bloody hell.

What does this all mean? What it means is that the USA, and its six NYAC women, can do no worse than silver in this competition. But, I’ve never met an Olympian yet who was going for silver. The currency of the Games is gold and that’s what’s in this team’s sights now. The gold medal game will take place on Thursday (August 8th) at 8pm (3pm US time). Also in the water will be the winners of the Hungary/Spain match taking place later today. I’ll update those details later. For now, I’m heading to the track (Jamie Nieto in the high jump). I hope to pick up a little something to steady my nerves on the way. 

* (Man goes into a sandwich shop. “Give me a crocodile sandwich, and make it snappy.” LOL. I love that one).

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