U.S. Women's Soccer, Water Polo Team Go For Gold

Two big gold medal matches of the Olympics are set Thursday in London, and both involve American women's teams. In water polo, the U.S. women seek to end 12 years of frustration with their first gold medal. And in soccer, the Americans have a chance at redemption. They play Japan which beat them in the World Cup final last year.

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Two big gold medal matches of the Olympics are set for tonight in London. Both involve American women's teams with extraordinary incentives to win.

In water polo, the U.S. women are trying to end 12 years of frustration and finally take the gold. And in soccer, the Americans have a chance at redemption. They play Japan, which beat them in last year's World Cup final in a game-ending shootout.

From London, NPR's Howard Berkes reports.

HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: First up is the soccer game in London's Wembley Stadium, which seats 90,000. And even it may not be big enough to contain the energy going into this match.

Abby Wambach is the leading U.S. scorer, and she spoke with reporters yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

ABBY WAMBACH: And the Japanese team is so good, and we are so good that it's about the soccer. And that's what's going to be so awesome about tomorrow night, is you're going to watch some beautiful soccer happen. You're going to see some amazing goals scored. And hopefully, people will become legends tomorrow night.

BERKES: Japanese coach Norio Sasaki says through an interpreter that his team brings a powerful incentive to the game: Japan's ongoing recovery from last year's devastating tsunami.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

NORIO SASKI: (Through translator) And, of course, all the people in Japan are still trying to come back from the disaster. And through our competition, all of the Japanese people will be able to obtain some encouragement, some energy from this team.

BERKES: Also last year, in the midst of Japan's recovery and grief, the Japanese team beat the Americans in the World Cup. Victory came in a tie-breaking shootout, and while spirits soared in Japan, the American players were crushed. Abby Wambach.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

WAMBACH: The last time in the World Cup, they got the better of us. I think that this time, we hope to change that. We hope to right that ship for ourselves and, of course, in the end, it's all about who finishes more their opportunities.

BERKES: Redemption is a powerful motivator, and Japanese coach Sasaki knows it.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

SASKI: (Through translator) Maybe this idea of revenging a defeat on the part of the U.S. team, maybe they have a greater incentive, a greater drive. So the question here becomes for us: How much stronger can we make our desire to have a win and beat the United States?

BERKES: Japanese captain Aya Miyama quickly answered, also through an interpreter.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

AYA MIYAMA: (Through Translator) But in our long history, we've had 20 losses or so. So when it comes to the desire to overcome one's difficulties and have a revenge, I think we're in a pretty good place.

BERKES: But do not mistake this for a grudge match. The teams held back to back news conferences, and they posed for photos in between, hugging and standing arm in arm. Both teams repeatedly talked about mutual respect and friendship, despite the past and the stakes.

The Americans have played in all four gold medal games the sport has had in the Olympics, and they won three of them.

The American women's water polo team has medaled in all three Olympics featuring their sport, but they have yet to win gold. Their next chance comes tonight against Spain. A last-minute loss is also driving them.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING AND CLAPPING)

BERKES: This is the celebration four years ago by the Dutch team, after they scored in the final 30 seconds of the gold medal match, leaving the Americans with silver. The U.S. players stood close by in tears.

BRENDA VILLA: You're devastated, because you set a goal for yourself and you put everything into it.

BERKES: Brenda Villa has been through every Olympic disappointment with the U.S. team, and is determined to win gold here in London, along with veteran goalkeeper Betsy Armstrong.

BETSY ARMSTRONG: I mean, there's always a little bit of a, yeah, we lost that game.

(LAUGHTER)

VILLA: Yeah, it doesn't disappear. That's for sure.

ARMSTRONG: We're competitive. If it did, then we wouldn't be who we are.

BERKES: The U.S. beat the gold medal favorite Australia in overtime Tuesday. The Spanish women have never played in the Olympics before, but have been spoilers in London so far. The gold medal matches in water polo and soccer begin just 15 minutes apart. Have the laptop and TV ready.

Howard Berkes, NPR News, London.

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