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Saturday, August 14, 2004
Tough bracket will test fit Team USA squad

Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece -- Wolf Wigo figures he has never seen or heard of any group of athletes in better physical shape than his own U.S. water polo team at the Athens Games.

"We're better trained than any team, I think, than any sport has ever been -- for anything,'' said Wigo, who starts in his third Olympics Sunday against Croatia.

"I can't imagine anyone training'' more, he said. "All we do is eat, sleep, train and recover. That's what I dream about at night, do every day. Everyone is fully committed.''

The 31-year-old Wigo was so intent on recouping some gain from all the pain he has endured under coach Ratko Rudic's training that he has risked missing the birth of his first child to chase a medal in Greece.

His wife, Barbara, is due to give birth to a baby girl on Aug. 30 -- the day after the men's water polo final.

"We've told the baby to wait,'' he said. "The due date is the day I get home, so it's a 50-50 chance,'' said Wigo, who also is going into the tournament with a perforated eardrum.

The U.S. team hasn't won an Olympic medal in men's water polo since taking silver at Seoul in 1988, when Rudic guided Yugoslavia to the gold.

Rudic, who won Olympic gold as a player for Yugoslavia and three consecutive Olympic gold medals as coach (two with the former Yugoslavia, one with Italy) between 1984-92, was hired as head coach of the U.S. team in 2001.

He introduced his famed conditioning methods and his single-minded management style immediately.

From an initial squad of about 25, he has honed 13 players to peak for the Olympics.

That has meant training up to 10 hours a day, including some match days, to ensure that anything the Americans lack in skill they can make up for with fitness and strength.

"The advantage is ... we'll go out being physical, trying to tire the other team out,'' Wigo said. "We know that if both teams are tired, we're going to be better off than they are. And that'll be from the first game to the last at the Olympics.''

Wigo, who played two seasons as a pro in the Greek league, said this U.S. team has no more talent than the Atlanta or Sydney squads he was on, but is more fit and professional.

"That's what Ratko really brought to us. Because in the U.S., people would have jobs and work around it,'' he said. "We'd still be training really hard, but now water polo is all we do, 100 percent.''

Slipping back into the pool Saturday for a final practice session was a little painful on the ear, but no deterrent to playing, Wigo said. He got a knee in the right ear training earlier in the week and a specialist confirmed a burst ear drum.

"The pain was so bad, it was like a drill going into my head,'' said Wigo, who practiced with cotton and petroleum jelly in his ear plus tape and a cap covering that.

Usually you're supposed to completely be out of the water for 10 days. In this circumstance, you can't do that. No matter what the pain, I'm going to play.''

Besides, it can't hurt more than the practice sessions.

The Americans are in a tough bracket with defending Olympic and world champion Hungary, No. 3 Serbia-Montenegro, Russia, Croatia and Kazakhstan.

Italy, a finalist at the last world championships, is in the other group with 1996 Olympic champion Spain, Australia, Germany, Greece and Egypt.

The top three teams from each group advance to the playoffs.

The United States is 4-3 against Croatia since 2002, including a 12-11 win in a shootout Aug. 6 in the semifinals at the Belgrade Trophy Tournament.

Hungary opens Sunday against Serbia-Montenegro and Italy plays against Spain.

The women's competition starts Monday, with the world-champion Americans against Hungary and defending Olympic gold-medalist Australia against Italy.