U.S. water polo team goes through tense time in Serbia

Times Staff Writer

The members of the U.S. men's water polo team realized something was amiss almost as soon as they landed in Serbia last week, an ever-present police escort at their side.

The team has spent nine days in Belgrade as part of a European tour, their visit to the capital city coinciding with a time of political unrest.

On Sunday, the southern province of Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia, sparking protests throughout the region. Some of the anger has been directed at Americans -- the U.S. Embassy, in particular -- because the Bush administration has formally recognized Kosovo as a nation.

"We've had police escorting us to the pool and police watching us the whole time," team member Matt Sagehorn said Tuesday by phone. "It's a little bit of a reality check."

Acting on advice from embassy officials, players and coaches spent Sunday in their hotel, watching scenes of violence on television news.

Protesters attacked the embassy in Belgrade, throwing chunks of concrete, torching garbage dumpsters and trashing cars. Two McDonald's restaurants were ransacked.

But from the hotel, Coach Terry Schroeder said, "we couldn't see anything or really hear anything. The embassy checked in a couple of times and let us know what was going on and made sure we were laying low."

The turmoil did not come as a complete surprise. Before leaving the U.S. -- the vast majority of the 20-man team is from Southern California -- players and coaches had read about Kosovo's intentions.

The situation sounded familiar to Schroeder and a few others on the team because in 2006 the Americans were training with the Serbia and Montenegro national team when those countries split.

"The next morning, half their team was gone," Schroeder said.

This time, the Americans were not deterred by political concerns, not with a chance to learn from one of the world's top programs.

"Watching them shoot is really amazing," Sagehorn said. "They fake well and they set each other up."

In some ways, the stay in Belgrade -- the team arrived Feb. 12 and will leave tonight for Greece, then Italy -- has been normal.

The days leading up to Kosovo's announcement were spent in the water, practicing with and scrimmaging against the Serbian national team.

But the constant police presence and embassy warnings "gave us a little bit of a scare," Schroeder said. "They wanted to keep us aware and make sure guys weren't out wandering around wearing USA stuff."

An official game was moved up a day to Saturday, Serbian officials wanting it completed before potential trouble. And when the protests began, the team found itself busy reassuring family back home.

Within 24 hours, U.S officials advised the team it could return to the pool and, as Sagehorn said, "it was strictly back to business. Straight back to water polo."

On Tuesday morning, their bus failed to show up so they walked several blocks to the pool, albeit with police driving slowly beside.



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