BEIJING | The United States women’s water polo team continues to carry the unwanted reputation of getting so close in the Olympics only to fall short.
Eight years ago, the Americans lost the final to Australia on a goal with 1.3 seconds remaining.
Four years ago, they fell in the semifinals to Italy on a goal with two seconds remaining.
And Thursday at Yingdong Natatorium, the top-ranked Americans fell to underdog Netherlands 9-8 on Danielle de Bruijn‘s power play goal with 26 seconds remaining. De Bruijn scored seven goals, including a hat trick in the first three-plus minutes, as the Dutch capped an unexpected trip to gold.
“I don’t think I’ve quite seen something like that,” U.S. coach Guy Baker said. “It’s up there with some of the great performances, especially because she did it at the Olympics. We were trying to get her stopped, but she’s always been a good scorer.”
The United States has played well since the Olympics introduced the sport in Sydney in 2000. Two players, Heather Petri and Brenda Villa, have been on all three teams, but their careers likely will end without a gold medal.
“It may sound like a cliche, but they’re the heart and soul of the team,” teammate Natalie Golda said. “Everything we’ve done is because of them and their leadership. They’re amazing people and athletes, and I can’t think of two better people to have three Olympic medals.”
The United States almost forced overtime, but Elsie Windes’ skipping shot hit the post and Villa’s attempt was blocked by goalie Isle van der Meijden with three seconds remaining.
The Netherlands, which didn’t qualify for the 2004 Games and was 10th and ninth at the last two world championships, won despite blowing several leads. The Americans never led and trailed 7-5 midway through the third period before goals by Villa and Brittany Hayes. Moriah van Norman’s goal with 5:05 remaining tied the score at 8-8.
The Americans, who defeated rival Australia in the semifinals, dug themselves an early hole. The first eight-minute period was all de Bruijn. Fueled by two sections of boisterous Dutch fans, de Bruijn had a hat trick before the game was four minutes old.
“It was unbelievable for myself and her, too,” Dutch coach Robin Van Galen said. “She didn’t perform too well In the semifinals, and I was worried her peak was over. When I saw her face after she scored the first goal, I knew she was good. … I didn’t know she would play as enormous as she did today.”
Van Galen said the Dutch players quickly began finding ways to get de Bruijn the ball. A left-handed shot is considered a luxury in water polo, but de Bruijn used a variety of moves and shots to score.
“When we saw how she was playing in the first period, you realized how hot she was,” Van Galen said. “The other players were working hard and they were allowing her to get space on offense. She had the space to shoot, but she had to convert on those shots.”