RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Each quarter begins with pure, unbridled speed, a furious dash from the mouth of the goal to the middle of the pool while your opponent comes barreling at you from the opposite direction. At stake is the most valuable commodity in water polo: possession of the ball.
While players have all sorts of tricks for winning the sprints, they all agree on one thing: Practice makes perfect.
"Pushing off the wall is way better," U.S. driver Rachael Fattal said. "But (you) try to get momentum, so if you can get momentum it's not too bad. It's definitely something you have to work on."
U.S. coach Adam Krikorian lets his players decide who takes the sprints — "They know better than I do," he said — and it worked out quite well in an 11-6 victory over Hungary on Saturday, concluding a 3-0 run through group play for the defending Olympic champions. The Americans had the ball at the beginning of each quarter, with Fattal taking two sprints, Hungary jumping early on one and the U.S. winning a jump ball after a tie-up in the fourth.
Fattal said captain Maggie Steffens lines up next to her for the sprints and helps her watch the referees.
"I only look at one. Maggie's telling me what the other ref behind me is doing," Fattal said. "So when she puts her hand up I know that my person's going to put their hand up and get ready to go, but I just go as fast as I can. I put my head down and hold my breath and I go."
Standing nearby, Steffens pointed right back to Fattal.
"She's a competitor," Steffens said.
Timing the starting whistle is a big key — "If you start little bit later, you don't have a chance," said Zivko Gocic, the captain of Serbia's men's team — but you also have to get up to full speed as quickly as possible without the benefit of starting blocks or a wall.
"It's pretty tough," Australia driver Keesja Gofers said. "It's always nice to do sprints off the wall, when you get a nice push-off. But we do work a lot on our breaststroke and egg beater (kicks), so we're used to starting from nothing and like changing speeds."
Gofers and Rowie Webster scored two goals apiece to help Australia beat Brazil 10-3 to finish second in Group A behind unbeaten Italy. Australia will face Hungary in Monday's first quarterfinal when the tournament shifts to the Olympic Aquatics Stadium for the next round.
Also Saturday, Laura Lopez Ventosa scored four times as Spain pulled away from China for a 12-8 victory, and Roberta Bianconi had three goals in Italy's 10-5 win against Russia. Spain and Russia meet in Monday's quarters, and Italy takes on China.
Next up for the United States is Brazil, which has dropped each of the three meetings between the countries this year by a combined score of 55-7.
The U.S. got a preview of what it likely will see more and more the rest of the way when Hungary tried a physical approach against the speedy Americans. But Steffens scored four times and Maddie Musselman had three goals to send the U.S. to its 19th straight victory.
"That's what we need to be ready for," Krikorian said. "I think I'd be shocked if teams don't come out and play real more physical with us. Everyone's looking for an edge and trying to find a way to gain an advantage and obviously that's one way to play."
Steffens leads the tournament with 10 goals after scoring 21 times during the United States' march to its first Olympic gold. The Stanford star seems to have picked up right where she left off in London.
"She's a captain for a reason," Krikorian said. "Obviously an excellent player, but I'd say an even better leader, and someone that we can kind of count on to play with intelligence and play with intensity all the time. That's exactly what you want out of your leader."