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U.S. women's water polo team focused on gold, not water color

RIO DE JANEIRO -- After competing at the Maria Lenk Aquatics Center during the preliminary round last week, the U.S. women's water polo players had a more impressive venue Monday afternoon. For one thing, they played Brazil at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium, where Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky swam to multiple gold medals.

And for another, the pool's color was blue, not green.

According to Rio Olympic officials, last week's sudden and surprising green color in the Maria Lenk pools for water polo and diving was due to the mistaken use of hydrogen peroxide. That created a sea of concern about the water's safety, but the U.S. team said it was no big deal at all.

"We've played in a lot of different types of pools,'' goalkeeper Ashleigh Johnson said. "It was just another pool.''

U.S. coach Adam Krikorian said people made a much bigger deal about the color than was warranted and that the team has been in much worse pools. "Even the pools we train at sometimes. It happens,'' he said. "It's fine as long as the temperature is OK and it's healthy. The players weren't saying anything to me [about problems].''

Captain Maggie Steffens said she received many questions about the green water but that it had no effect and was no different than playing any other water polo game. Still, she loved playing in the swimming center Monday where Phelps had competed

"You can even feel the energy that swimming left here,'' she said. "Anytime you get to be in a stadium or pool that your sport plays in and feel the energy that was left by legends, literally legends, it makes playing so much more unique. You can almost feel that energy in the water.''

The Brazil team certainly felt the energy, albeit in a bad way for their chances, because the energy from the U.S. team completely dominated the game. The Americans led 13-0 at one point on their way to the 13-3 victory and advanced to a semifinal against Hungary on Wednesday.

"When we walked out, I could feel the energy, I could feel the passion that was bubbling through the stands,'' Steffens said. "I was just smiling, and looking up I could see a lot of American flags. I hope that one day we can play in the final and fill up those stands. And make history when it comes to women's water polo.''

The Americans are trying to become the first country to win consecutive gold medals in women's water polo, which was added to the Olympics in 2000. They won the 2012 Olympics, and the way they have been playing, they're a good pick to win here. They have yet to lose a game while outscoring opponents 47-17. Nine U.S. players scored goals Monday.

As many goals as the U.S. has scored, Krikorian said the defense has been the biggest part of the team's success. Johnson did not allow a single goal Monday. The U.S. gave up Brazil's three goals after Krikorian subbed for her near the end of the game.

While water polo is not a popular sport in the United States, Steffens says the U.S. women are strong because of the playing opportunities that athletes in California and Florida get, plus the tight connections they can make with past Olympians. She also wants more people to notice the sport.

"I truly think water polo is not only the most fun sport to play, but to watch, too,'' Steffens said. "Yes, I'm biased, but I grew up a swimmer and a soccer player, a basketball player. I did gymnastics. I'm a huge Warriors fan now. I love watching women's soccer. I watch other sports, but man, water polo encompasses all of those sports.

"You're able to sit down and watch one hour of the sport and get the sense of basketball, get the feel of swimming, get the feel of wrestling, get the excitement of soccer. And I would love to show that to the world ... with the way we play. We would love to move forward and play the semis and the final in this pool, and we have to play our best.''

Water polo is extremely popular in the Balkans and central Europe, including Hungary, which has won nine gold medals on the men's side but no medals on the women's side. The U.S. beat Hungary 11-6 in the preliminary round here.

"It's the semifinals, so we'll have a tough matchup no matter what,'' Steffens said. "But I think if we can continue to play with the heart and the passion [we'll win]. And I would like to have the Brazil fans even cheering for us.''