- Jim Caple, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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LONDON -- No offense to Michael Phelps, but winning 16 gold medals and 20 overall would be more difficult if he had to deal with someone like 6-foot-7 French beast Yannick Agnel swimming in the same lane, locking up his arms and holding his head underwater during the 200-meter individual medley.
"And could he handle looking like this?" U.S. defender Peter Hudnut said, pointing to his missing two front teeth. "The competitive nature is obviously there, but I don't know how swimmers would deal with the physicality. Swimming in a straight line is a little different than swimming zigzag and having guys kick you and pull you."
Hudnut lost the teeth during an April training session when the back of teammate Ryan Bailey's head smacked him in the mouth. Last month, he tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his left arm while training against Montenegro, an injury that will require surgery when the Olympics end. He also broke his back several years ago.
"I'm lucky to be here, probably," he said.
In other words, Hudnut, 32, is one tough hombre. At 6-3 and 230 pounds, he is built like a middle linebacker and has the strength, endurance and lung capacity to swim 1½ miles while fighting off equally fierce competitors over the course of a 32-minute game. His broad chest is covered with hair, old-school style. He also recently grew a beard, "so I could look more like a hockey player."
"He is about as close as we have to a hockey player," U.S. captain Tony Azevedo said. "He's tough, and he's mean. He's our fireball. The last Olympics, he was probably our most valuable player. Every time we needed something, he was there. And it will probably be the same this year."
The United States has never won a gold medal in water polo, unless you count the 1904 Olympics, which you shouldn't because it was the only nation competing in the sport that year. The Americans came close to gold in Beijing four years ago but lost to Hungary in the final. Most of the players from that team are back, and this is probably the best chance the U.S. has ever had at gold.
After beating England 13-7 Thursday night, the Americans are 3-0 entering Saturday's game against top-ranked Serbia.
"The Americans give a lot of headaches to every team they have played in this tournament," Croatia's Maro Jokovic said. "Practically, you cannot beat them, but we will see what happens in the quarterfinals."
Water polo is so popular in Croatia and the rest of the Balkans that pros can earn six figures playing in some of Europe's poorer countries. There are water polo cages on most beaches and clubs in most cities.
"In the Balkans, it's their national sport," Azevedo said. "I lived in Dubrovnik [Croatia] for two years as well as Montenegro, and they do a great job of making it a big event, making it something the fans want to go to and see. You can go and buy shirts and buy food and watch this game. It's a cultural thing.
"For us in the U.S., it's not that way. We rarely get to have games in the United States, and when we do, maybe we're not selling alcohol or food or drinks. We need to step up our game and make water polo a great game in the United States."
The question is not why the sport is so popular in the Balkans but why it is not more popular in the United States. It is an absolutely incredible sport, combining the best aspects of basketball, swimming, wrestling and boxing. It is filled with pin-up model athletes such as Azevedo. The only way you could make it more appealing to Americans would be to add car crashes and explosions.
"In the last six years, they've really figured out how to film it well for TV," Hudnut said. "This Olympics and the last, it's made for great viewing. And I hope we can continue to do well so it will grow the sport. It's an amazing sport with great physicality and speed, and it's truly a team sport where one player can't do everything. Every player has a role."
What water polo needs is attention. The United States winning a gold medal could do that. Heck, Samuel L. Jackson already tweeted the U.S. some love after it beat Montenegro.
"This is the kind of thing we need for our sport," Azevedo said. "And, of course, we have to do our job. Win a medal. Win the gold, hopefully. And promote the sport as best we can."
And if Phelps is looking for another water sport after the Olympics, well, that wouldn't hurt either.