MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
In this summer's Olympics, the US has a good chance of medaling in a sport that few Americans watch, even during the Olympics. The women's water polo team is the best in the world right now. As NPR's Howard Berkes reports, outside California, water polo doesn't get much respect.
HOWARD BERKES: Maybe it's the sport's name, as American water polo defender Natalie Golda suggests.
NATALIE GOLDA: Well, first off, there aren't any horses. We're not throwing mallets around in the water. It's a sport of strength and finesse.
BERKES: And it's a sport with relatively few players and fans.
GOLDA: At last count, there were about 35,000 members of USA Water Polo. So that, I mean, itself is small compared to, like, USA Swimming with 600,000 members. The running joke with our team was everybody who comes to our games is either our parents or our siblings or just our friends from school or something like that.
KYLE KOPP: Three seventy five, on the minute, all out. There's not going to be a lot of rest.
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BERKES: It is the biggest sport to these 15 women who begin twice-daily, three-hour practices with warm-up laps. Their outdoor practice pool is at a military airfield near Long Beach, California where kids splash in an adjacent pool and helicopters fly overhead.
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KOPP: Down below...
BERKES: That's assistant Olympic Coach Kyle Kopp running the drill. Watching from a poolside exercise bike and getting his own workout is head coach Guy Baker, who led these athletes to silver and bronze medals in the last two Olympics, the only two to include women's water polo.
GUY BAKER: We've won two world championships. We're the only country to medal at both womens' Olympic water polo tournaments. We've got three-time Olympians who are the most decorated athletes over the last eight years internationally, and financially, it's not going to be - for us and our program, this will probably be the lowest-paying job they're going to have in their lifetime.
BERKES: Being the best in the world pays about $2,500 a month. That's a stipend from the U.S. Olympic Committee. There are also free swimsuits, but no endorsement contracts that make other Olympians millionaires.
BAKER: We've done a great job in both Olympic Games, but for our culture, they're going to identify with people who win the gold medals. And I think if we do that, then it can potentially open up some more doors.
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BERKES: Making it to the medal round might prompt Olympic TV viewers to tune into action like this: a fast break with the defense and offense sprinting across the pool, some players swimming backstroke so they can follow the ball. There's not touching the bottom. It's too deep, anyway. It's like playing basketball while constantly swimming and treading water for four eight-minute quarters. Some shots on goal skip like flat stones, and they're the toughest to defend. Players wrestle for position, often grabbing and pulling underwater where referees can't see.
BAKER: If wrestling is allowed in our playing, it usually becomes a really defensive-oriented game - less goals scored, less action that happens. So when it does that, it just becomes kind of a stagnant game. Then the game just kind of grinds to a halt. You know, it just - it's not enjoyable to the eye.
BERKES: The sport has adopted new rules to make it more telegenic and more appealing to young people.
BAKER: So the game's faster. There's more action. There's more emphasis on defensive positioning instead of defensive wrestling. And with more action, I think it's more entertaining to watch.
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BERKES: One of the most entertaining and amazing moves is demonstrated by goalkeeper Betsey Armstrong, as her teammates fire ball after ball at the net. Remember, she's not able to stand and leap, but she does launch herself high out of the water like a dolphin at Sea World with a kick called egg beater. It's visible during the Olympics, thanks to underwater cameras. Attacker Heather Petrie describes its look and effect.
HEATHER PETRIE: So your feet - actually, with your toes, you're traces circles. And if you've ever used an egg beater in the kitchen to beat eggs, you see that they're going in opposing circles, kind of towards each other and around and about. And what those do, as you bring your feet around, it's pushing against the water.
BERKES: How far up out of the water (unintelligible)?
PETRIE: Well, some people can get out to - you can see the bottoms of their suits. It's incredible.
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KOPP: Twenty-five seconds, here you go. On one - you got to get one.
BERKES: The American water polo women take their egg beater kicks to the Olympics on August 11th. That's when their quests begin for an Olympic gold medal and more of the limelight with a first-round game against China.
Howard Berkes, NPR News.
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