Women’s water polo: faster and stronger

April 25, 2011, 11:06 a.m. (ET)

It's not that Lolo Silver wasn't already a world-class athlete and in what the rest of us mere mortals would consider great shape. Among her many accomplishments, she was the leading scorer for the winning U.S. women's water polo team last summer at the FINA World Cup, with 11 goals. 

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U.S. women's water polo team practice at Los Alamitos, Calif. (Alan Abrahamson)

Back row left to right - Forel Davies, Heather Petri, and Jillian Kraus
Middle row - left to right - Elsie Windes, Jessica Steffens, and Juliet Moss
In goal - Tumua Anae

Then again, the American women's head coach, Adam Krikorian, had promised the U.S. women that over the course of this winter, water polo's off-season, they would -- at his direction -- come to know what it was like to get in amazingly, ridiculously phenomenal shape. 

Water polo demands ferocious mental will.  That mental edge is rooted in physical toughness. It's at once that simple and that complex.

The U.S. women's water polo team has won virtually everything it could win over the past decade -- with one exception, Olympic gold.

At the close of the 2010 season, the U.S. women were the No. 1 team in the world. To be atop the podium at the close of the 2012 London Olympics, however -- that is the manifest goal, and that's why Krikorian undertook at the start of 2011 a studied journey to take this team where it has never gone before.

It is, indeed, a journey. It can't be anything but. It's essentially a new team, a younger team and -- let there be no doubt -- Krikorian's team.

Which means it's of necessity going to be a long and winding journey. And a compelling study in both coach and team dynamic.

In sports, there can be no guarantee of anything. Beyond which, water polo is just too hard. If anyone in the American camp needs a vivid reminder of how hard, there is always Sydney and 2000 for a reminder -- one goal shy, just one very late goal, from gold.

That said: Krikorian, who came to the U.S. team from UCLA, is quietly but assuredly confident in himself and his means. The players have seemingly bought into his program.  Already, there is about this U.S. women's team a buzz, a feeling, a hard-to-describe sense that they are a band of sisters on the road to history.

Perhaps the rest of the world doesn't know it yet.

But they do.

"Definitely," Lolo Silver said at practice this past Friday at their home base, a military base -- for real -- at Los Alamitos, Calif. 

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After practice, U.S. women's head coach Adam Krikorian and Juliet Moss compare notes. (Alan Abrahamson)

"We have all been pushed past anything -- pushed mentally and physically past anything we thought possible. Even the girls who have been to previous Olympics haven't had this sort of training this far away from the Olympics.  It has us focused and it has us getting together and it has forming friendships that are going to last forever."

At the outset, Krikorian made plain that despite the team's many past successes every spot on the roster was up for grabs.

No one was guaranteed a spot -- not even Brenda Villa, arguably the team's marquee player over the past three Olympic Games. She, like everyone else, would have to earn her way onto the 2012 Olympic team. 

"Brenda has done a good job. She has gotten herself in probably the best fitness level she has been in, in a very long time," Krikorian said as he monitored the team, split into squads of three doing catch-and-shoot drills in the Los Alamitos pool.

"She has put herself in a pretty good position at this point. But," he emphasized, "there's no out here that's guaranteed a spot."

Of course, Villa was not among the women in the pool that day. She was nine time zones away, in Italy, playing for her club team, Orizzonte -- though Krikorian and the other Americans had just come back from playing against her, in an exhibition in Italy, but also with her, in another exhibition, against a team in Holland.

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The U.S. women's water polo team practicing catch-and-shoot drills at its Los Alamitos, Calif., practice facility. (Alan Abrahamson)

For extra fun this week in Los Alamitos, several of the women had started wearing 7 1/2-pound weight belts during their morning practices. Understand -- that is, in the pool. They were swimming or treading water or doing those shooting drills wearing those belts.

"Those are our new little gifts," Lolo said.  "To help us improve our leg strength."

Over the course of the winter, practice started at 7 and ran until 10, running again from 1:30 in the afternoon until 4:30, with a variation in the schedule on Wednesdays, to break things up.

There was time for both basic conditioning and for strength training.

Over the course of the winter, in a 200-yard swim test, Silver shaved 40 seconds off her average time.

At that level -- that is a huge drop.

She was hardly, however, alone. 

Elsie Windes, who scored five goals during the 2010 FINA World Cup, is also 40 seconds faster now.  

She said, "I did things I thought I couldn't -- things you thought you couldn't do but you did, and with your teammates."

Tanya Gandy, a standout at UCLA and who joined the U.S. national team in 2009, who scored five goals at the 2010 FINA World League Super Final, cut a full minute off her time.

"I still think the clock was lying," Tanya said. "It was good to see -- I didn't think I could get that fast. and I can get faster. It's very motivating to know how far you can come and how you can be pushed. Every day you can be pushed. It's testing you. It's testing your mental state."

"Maybe," Lolo Silver said with a shy smile, referring to Adam Krikorian, "there's a method to the madness."