The United States women’s water polo team completed its march through the Olympic Qualifying Tournament Monday, defeating Italy 11-5 in Gouda, Netherlands, to win the gold medal.
Although Team USA had secured its trip to Rio with a quarterfinal win over France on Saturday, its performance in the semifinal (a 13-7 win over Spain) and the final impacts its seeding in the Olympic draw, and it fought to ensure the most favorable outcome. It also gave the U.S. team plenty of confidence, having rolled through its eight matches like a bulldozer, outscoring its opponents by a 123-34 margin. Along the way, the reigning world and Olympic champions defeated 2013 world champion Spain twice, once in group play and again in the semifinals.
Now the U.S. women can turn their focus to preparing to add to the pages of history they have written in recent years. The only team to medal in every Olympics since women’s water polo was added to the competition program in 2000, the United States could become the first to successfully defend a women’s Olympic gold. They already have made their mark by becoming the first team to hold all four of the sport’s major titles at one time as reigning champions in the Olympics, the world championships, World Cup and World League.
Four teams earned their spots in Rio at the qualification tournament: the U.S., Italy, Russia and Spain. Brazil automatically qualified as the host nation of the Games, and three other teams advanced to the tournament through other qualifying events. Australia won its spot at the Oceania continental selection last October, while China punched its ticket at the 2015 Asian Championships in December. Hungary secured its spot by winning the 2016 European Championships in January.
As they have in every game of the tournament, the Americans drew first blood in the final, this time on a Makenzie Fischer goal two minutes in. Unlike the other contests, however, they were unable to build on their early advantage. The Italians, who entered the game with a 6-0-1 tournament record, were able to answer each American goal in the first quarter before a successful penalty shot conversion with 37 seconds left in the first put Italy up 4-3. It marked the first time the United States had trailed the entire tournament.
The second quarter saw both teams play tough, physical defense. The U.S. drew even at the 4:32 mark when Courtney Mathewson slipped a shot in from the left wing to make the score 4-4. Italy answered with a go-ahead goal at 2:53 left in the half, but Makenzie Fischer tied the match again with 46 seconds left for a 5-5 halftime score.
The Americans finally opened some distance on their opponent with three unanswered goals in the third period. Mathewson scored a go-ahead goal with 6:41 left in the quarter, followed by a pair of inside goals by Kami Craig at 5:16 and Aria Fischer at 1:59, giving the U.S. an 8-5 lead entering the final quarter.
Kiley Neushul scored her second goal of the game to pad the U.S. lead, 9-5, with 5:23 remaining. The tight, physical American defense gave Italy two power plays midway through the final quarter, but the Italians were unable to convert those opportunities into scores. After Fischer scored her 24th goal of the tournament at 5:23 to increase the U.S. advantage to 10-5, Italy finally broke its scoring drought, finding the net at 1:11. It proved too little, too late. Maddie Musselman scored with 22 seconds to go to close out the scoring.