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Thursday, August 19, 2004
Rudic has U.S. men ready to medal

Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece -- Coach Ratko Rudic describes the U.S. Olympic team's preparation for Athens as much-needed "suffering'' years.

Rudic, who guided Yugoslavia to Olympic final victories over the United States in 1984 and '88 and then took the Italians to gold in 1992, thought American men's water polo was in crisis when he was hired three years ago.

"I came to the United States and I found a 'tragical' situation,'' he said. "I came from a different background, Europe. (The Americans) were way behind. Everybody was prepared better.

"I had to go to work to build a team of the same level.''

What the Americans lacked in skill, he decided, they'd make up for with conditioning. So he imposed "suffering'' -- one of the most grueling training programs in sports.

He had the squad swimming, lifting weights, doing drills or watching video for 10 hours a day, all the time with Athens as the target.

After wins over Croatia and Kazakhstan, Rudic's method faced its first major test against Hungary, the world and Olympic champion.

The Americans lost 7-5 on Thursday, missing a shot to pull even while trailing 6-5 in the last period. The close finish bolstered Rudic's belief in his team.

"I am confident,'' he said. "I was confident before the tournament. I knew what the team could do. We'll see. The Olympic tournament, you can grow up from game to game. This is one of the games that will help us.''

Hungary is 3-0 and a favorite to win its eighth gold medal.

"They're very close to the podium, so I know now we can compete for the medal,'' Rudic said.

Wolf Wigo, a three-time Olympian, said Rudic was making a difference.

"In 2001 and 2002, we got blown out pretty badly against Hungary, by eight or 10 goals, so how we've accomplished getting so close to these guys is really good,'' he said.

Wigo and Tony Azevedo played in the Sydney Olympics, where the Americans placed sixth. Ryan Bailey was on the roster, but didn't get much game time.

The other 10 U.S. players are participating in their first Olympics. Hungary has nine returning Olympians. Still, it was close until the closing minutes.

Azevedo scored twice and hit the post with a shot with 3:02 remaining and the United States trailing 6-5.

"I missed from far out, but it was really close,'' said Azevedo. "That's good ... because later on, when it's more important, we'll be putting those shots away.''

Wigo said the Americans, 2-1 after wins over Croatia and Kazakhstan, are still medal contenders.

"These are the best teams in the world in our bracket and we're playing right with them,'' he said.

The United States needs to beat either Olympic semifinalist Russia or No. 3-ranked Serbia-Montenegro in its next matches to advance to the quarterfinals.

They won't be short of inspiration.

"As hard as it's been, Ratko taught us a lot about -- ahem -- he calls it the suffering,'' said goalkeeper Brandon Brooks, who made three impressive saves in the second half. "He's made us lift a whole level. He's also taught us that it takes a lot of hard work and suffering.''

Hungary's Gergeley Kiss sees the Americans as water polo's most improved team.

"They've grown much with Rudic,'' Kiss said. "He made good teams in Yugoslavia and Italy. He has possibilities to make good teams wherever he wants. He and the U.S. team are at this level.

"If the they play well and we don't play up to our potential, they can be the best.''

In other matches, Aleksandar Sapic scored three goals in Serbia-Montenegro's 9-5 win over Kazakhstan, while Spain beat Australia 8-4.

The world champion U.S. women are vying for a place in the medal round against unbeaten Russia on Friday. The Americans were upset by Canada in their last match, allowing five goals in the last six minutes.