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USA extend women’s water polo reign

The USA scooped women’s water polo gold at Rio 2016 to become the first team to successfully defend an Olympic title in the event.

The Americans saw off Italy 12-5 in the final to retain their London 2012 crown in style and maintain their record of winning a medal at every Games since women’s water polo was added to the Olympic programme in 2000. The reigning world champions were never headed in a final that brought together the only two teams who had gone undefeated in all five of their previous games at Rio 2016.

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Victorious in every major tournament they have contested since the start of 2014, the defending champions were never seriously pressed by the Athens 2004 gold medallists. One of the four USA players who also won gold at London 2012, Courtney Mathewson opened the scoring before Federica Radicchi levelled for Italians, who then struggled to subdue the powerful US attack.

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A commanding 4-1 up at the end of the first quarter, the Olympic title holders were 5-3 to the good at half-time, and were never threatened once Kiley Neushul and Rachel Fattal extended their lead at the start of the third quarter. Ashleigh Johnson then saved a penalty from Roberta Bianconi to all but seal the fate of the Italians, who had no way back into the game after starting the fourth and final quarter five goals adrift. In running out 12-5 winners, the mighty Americans broke the record for the most goals scored in an Olympic women’s final and also posted the highest winning margin for a final.

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Prior to the match, the USA’s Maggie Steffens was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player, while Johnson, who saved nine of the 13 shots fired at her in the final, got the nod as best goalkeeper. Showing their appreciation for coach Adam Krikorian, the winning squad put all their gold medals around his neck, prompting him to comment: “It means my neck hurts for a few seconds. Honestly, though, it means a ton, no doubt. I’m not going to say that it doesn’t make your heart warm. I will say, though, that the daily interaction and the relationships I have with this team mean more to me than any medal.”

“We will go home with a heavier suitcase,” said Italy’s Tania de Mario at the end of an excellent tournament for the European side. “Winning silver is very important as this is worth gold to us. This is the beginning of a bright new future for this team and to win silver is an extraordinary accomplishment. We deserved it as we played every match here like a final.”

Bronze for Russia

Taking third place on the podium were Russia, who edged a tense penalty shootout 7-6 to complete a 19-18 win over European champions Hungary and consign them to fourth place for the third Games running.

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In a thrilling high-scoring match that saw the lead and possession change hands continuously, the Hungarians looked to have one hand on the bronze when they moved into an 11-9 lead in the final quarter. The Russians levelled the scores, however, and though Rita Keszthelyi converted a late penalty to re-establish Hungary’s lead, Anastasia Simanovich fired home with just one second remaining to take the tie into a shootout that her side would ultimately edge.

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“I don’t really know how to express myself fully right now, but it’s really cool,” said hero of the hour Simanovich after collecting her medal, while Hungary coach Attila Biro put on a brave face after their latest Olympic disappointment: “We are happy we belong to the top four sides here at the Olympic Games, but we feel disappointment because we had the medal in our hand. I don’t have any regrets because we did everything we could in our preparations and here.”

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