LIMA, Peru – The U.S. men’s water polo team entered Saturday with something to prove. After a poor showing at the 2019 FINA World Aquatics Championships, a ninth-place finish, the squad would have to prove itself worthy of qualification for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 with a gold medal at the Pan American Games Lima 2019. And Team USA did just that.
Both the men’s and women’s water polo teams won gold Saturday at the Villa Maria del Triunfo Aquatic Center. The men defeated Canada 18-6, paced by five goals from Alex Bowen, to secure their spot in the Olympic Games. The women’s team, which entered the Games having already secured its qualification, defeated Canada, 24-4. The gold was the men’s seventh consecutive and the women’s fifth.
“It’s incredible, it’s really wonderful,” Bowen said. “We put a lot into this summer, and we’ve had to go through a lot of hardships to get here. Honestly, we’re just so excited to finish. We did our job. We did what we needed to do. It’s a successful summer.”
Bowen made his impact felt early. He netted two of the four U.S. goals in the first quarter to outpace Canada, 4-1. This offensive pace kept up in the second quarter. Again, Canada was held to one goal, and, again, the U.S. found the back of the net. Bowen boosted his goal total to four while Johnathan Hooper got in on the action with two goals of his own. Entering halftime, the U.S. led Canada 10-2.
The offensive fireworks fizzled out to start the second half, however. Canada struck first with a goal from Aleksa Gardijan a minute and a half into the third quarter. From there, the two teams traded turnovers and blocked shots. The U.S. eventually tacked on two more goals toward the end of the quarter to take a 12-3 lead.
The U.S. capitalized on several Canada penalties and scored six fourth-quarter goals, led by Hooper with three. Canada entered the game averaging 14 goals a game but was held to four by Team USA goalkeeper Alex Wolf.
“The team really helped me out a lot,” Wolf said. “Last time (against Canada in the preliminaries), the defense broke down a lot and put way more of a load on my shoulders. Tonight, we did a better job of taking our responsibilities, leading me to what I needed to block. The score shows how we executed on that.”
Hooper, Bowen, and Ben Hallock each scored five goals for the U.S. Gardijan led Canada in scoring with two goals.
The U.S. women’s water polo team, which was in the crowd cheering on the men as they secured their spot in the Olympic Games, was the first to win gold Saturday. While the women had already qualified for Tokyo, they still put on a show against Canada.
Right from the start, the U.S. established the dominance it sought to bring to the gold medal match. Thirty seconds into the game, Steffens rocketed a shot past Canadian goalkeeper Jessica Gaudreault. She scored two more in quick succession, securing an early hat trick.
“I think it’s always important to come out with a presence,” Steffens said. “We’ve played against Canada in a lot of games. It’s a huge rivalry. We wanted to come out and set an impression of how we wanted the game to go. It was important to come out with a little energy, put the pressure on them and make sure they felt it.”
Canada responded, however, when Emma Wright buried a penalty shot with about five minutes left to play in the first quarter. Canada wouldn’t score again until midway through the second quarter. Ashleigh Johnson, the U.S. goalkeeper, proved too much for the Canadian offense to surmount. She recorded 17 stops on 21 shots. Her defensive effort coupled with strong offense earned the U.S. a 13-3 lead going into halftime.
“I was just playing my role for my team,” Johnson said. “We all have something that we bring to the table, and it’s really cool that I can do my job well in these moments. I can’t do it without the defense. They tell me where to be. They start it, they dictate it. I’m just fitting into the game plan.”
While Johnson kept the Canadian offense at bay, the U.S. offense got hot to start the second half. The outburst of offense was spearheaded by Makenzie Fischer, who scored four of her six goals in the third quarter.
The U.S. held a 23-4 lead entering the final quarter. Fischer led the U.S. in goals with six, followed by Stephanie Haralabidis and Steffens with four each.
“We had a good lead at the half, but we wanted to keep pushing,” Fischer said. “We wanted to show how fluid the offense was. It was just really fun. We definitely have a lot of confidence as a team.”