DAY 16 : THE SEOUL GAMES : Water Polo : U.S. Gets Second Chance, Still Second-Best

Times Staff Writer

It was like a recurring nightmare with a slightly different horrifying flash to jolt a dreamer back to reality. The flash came from the lights on the scoreboard: Yugoslavia 9, United States 7.

It was like a bad joke that built and built to an unfunny punch line: " . . . and then the Yugoslavs win it by 2 goals in the overtime!"

It was like a beautifully scripted play with the stage set for justice to be done, fate to be sealed in the final, dramatic scene, until half the players on the stage decided to ad lib a tragic ending.

The Americans were supposed to win the Olympic gold medal in water polo this time around. It was all falling into place. It was beautiful. Didn't anyone go over this with the Yugoslavs?

Where does it say that American heroes Terry Schroeder and Kevin Robertson linger sadly in the far corner of the Olympic Indoor Swimming Pool, watching the Yugoslavs frolic in the water with wet coaches, wet flags and bottles of champagne? Who ever thought this would fly?

Isn't anyone keeping an eye on fate these days?

Just what went wrong Saturday night? What happened to the perfect turnaround?

Who wrote this piece of chicanery?

Let's go over this:

Yugoslavia wins the gold medal in Los Angeles in 1984, getting a controversial last-second goal to tie the game and winning on total goals, which leaves everyone feeling a little unsatisfied. An overtime would have been better. Determine the winner right there in the pool, not on a calculator.

OK. The rule is changed so that the next time around, the United States will have the chance to come back and win it in the overtime.

The stars of the U.S. team decide to play 4 more years, to sacrifice time with their families, to put their careers on hold, to to come back and write a different ending to their water polo epic.

The perfect ending calls for the United States to meet Yugoslavia again in the 1988 Olympic final. Not the Soviet Union. Not West Germany. Not anyone else. And in these Olympic Games, round after round goes just right so that it will happen.

The perfect ending calls for an overtime, so that the United States can demonstrate how it should have gone in 1984. (If the tiebreaker were, again, goals differential, Yugoslavia would win it.) And, that's the way it goes. The United States leads, 5-2, and the Yugoslavs came back to tie it, 5-5. For extra excitement, Yugoslav star Igor Milanovic makes it 6-5 in the final period and U.S. driver Jody Campbell ties it again, 6-6, bringing on the two 3-minute overtime periods.

That's where the script goes out the window.

The Americans get so busy trying to compensate for the players who are being ejected, they forget to score the winning goal. In fact, Yugoslavia leads, 9-6, before Mike Evans finally fires in a long shot that beats Yugoslav goalie Aleksandar Sostar.

Too little, too late.

The United States has beaten this team time and again since 1984. But in the game that mattered, the Americans had a 10-minute scoring lapse when, in the assessment of Yugoslav Coach Ratko Rudic, "They forgot to continue to play hard." That left them standing on the second level of the awards stand with silver medals.

The Soviets took the bronze, beating West Germany, 14-13.

It might be some time before the U.S. water polo team wins another medal. The veteran players on this team plan to retire. Goalie Craig Wilson, 31, said that there is no chance he'll go again. Schroeder, too, said he's finally had enough. Not everyone has decided, but as many as 10 of the 13 U.S. players may be retiring before the next Olympic Games.

They have been on the team since before 1980, the boycott year. They stayed 4 more years to play for the gold in 1984. And when they came up with silver, they stayed again for 4 more years to get that rare second chance. These guys have played together for about 10 years.

"This was, most likely, the last game most of us will play together, and that's what saddened me," Schroeder said, his voice getting a little shaky. "Kevin and I have been on the team since 1980. We didn't have any reason to warm down after this game, but we swam a couple of laps. We weren't quite ready for it to be over."

The next several years will be rebuilding years for United States water polo.

U.S. Coach Bill Barnett, after commenting on how hard the team played and how difficult it was at the end, after the ejections of Jody Campbell and both 2-meter guards, Doug Kimbell and Peter Campbell, said that he was hurting for the players.

"You can't believe the sacrifices these guys have had to make to get to this game," Barnett said. "Some of these guys were driving down (to Newport Beach) from the Valley or from Long Beach and back two or three times a week.

"They made sacrifices in their careers. They have had to forsake their wives and their families for the game. They put a lot of themselves into this."

And was it worth it? Schroeder was asked if he would have put in the 4 years if he had known it would end in another silver medal.

Without hesitation, he said: "I would. I've put 10 years into this team but I'd have to say that I've gotten a lot out of it. The journey to get to the game was a positive thing because of the friends I've made, not just on this team but all over the world, because of the travel, because of what sport has taught me.

"Our goal was to win the gold medal, but if I had known that these 4 years were going to end in silver, I certainly would do it again."

Schroeder has been elected to carry the U.S. flag at the closing ceremony. He said that he considered it an honor, and added: "I would be much more happy and have a much bigger smile on my face if we had won the gold."

Milanovic, the Yugoslav 2-meter man who had 2 goals, including the one that gave his team a 9-6 lead with 2 minutes 25 seconds to play in the second overtime, said that the United States was just as good as the Yugoslav team but that, on Saturday night, his team was "more lucky."

He scored that goal after Wilson blocked a shot--and the ball bounced off Wilson's chest right back to Milanovic that he could fire again.

Wilson said that he thought the United States was going to win the gold, up until the final moments. Everything felt so right, so in control, that it was difficult to believe it wasn't going to happen.

"I never felt the game slipping away," he said. "I never lost faith. I thought we would come back and win it, the way we did against Yugoslavia (in the first game here) and the way we did against Hungary.'

Schroeder felt that way, too, as the United States made its way through some tough, close competition to even get into the medal game.

"We really felt that fate was on our side," he said. "The way those early games went, we were starting to feel like somebody was on our side.

"But when it came down to it, it was up to us to put it in the net."

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