RIO DE JANEIRO — In 2000, women’s water polo was added to the Olympic program. The U.S. team won silver. At Athens in 2004, bronze. At Beijing in 2008, silver again.
And finally, at London in 2012, the gold, standing at the top of the podium at last.
The U.S. is on its way to an unprecedented fifth straight podium finish in women’s water polo. The women beat Hungary in a semifinal, 14-10, to advance to the gold-medal game. The U.S. will face Italy on Friday at 3:30 p.m. in the first matchup of previous gold medal winners.
Italy, which won the gold medal in 2004, is the last team to defeat the U.S. in a major competition. The U.S. has won 21 consecutive matches since a 10-9 loss to Italy in July 2015.
Four members of the U.S. team, Melissa Seidemann, Maggie Steffens, Courtney Mathewson and Kami Craig, were on the championship team in London. Craig also won silver in Beijing.
“I’m pretty excited to go for another medal, but it’s really about taking the opportunities as they come,” Seidemann said. “This is the first gold medal (game) for this team. I think it’s about going out there and playing like you have something to win.”
U.S. goalkeeper Ashleigh Johnson can add to a championship legacy as the first African-American on the women’s Olympic team.
“I think I’m important in that I’m bringing people to our sport and I’m letting them see our team succeed at this level,” Johnson said.
Going into Wednesday’s game, Hungary had yielded an 11-6 victory to the Americans in the group round. The U.S. women knew they could advance past this particular opponent, having done so recently, but they couldn’t let their guard down.
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“Hungary is a big rival of ours,” Seidemann said. “We know they play physical. We know they play tough.”
After Hungary’s Anna Illes had an exclusion foul in the first quarter, the Americans took advantage of one less defender and Makenzie Fischer flung the ball into the net for the first point of the game.
However, Hungary scored soon after to tie the game early and again to take the lead, 2-1. Swimming down to the Hungarian end of the pool, Steffens took a shot that bounced off the post. A rebound and series of quick passes led to a score by Seidemann to tie the game, 2-2. The quarter ended 3-2 in favor of the U.S., which did not relinquish that lead the rest of the game. The U.S. was led by Steffens, whose four scores gave her a total of 16 for the tournament.
“Going out there and just grinding through some of that physicality,” Craig said of the team’s focus throughout the game.
Rebecca Harris is a student in the Sports Capital Journalism Program at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.