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U.S. women’s water polo shooting for gold

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Utahn Courtney Young Johnson hopes to win a historic gold medal today.

Utahn Courtney Young Johnson hopes to win a historic gold medal today.


SYDNEY — The Sydney International Aquatics Center has become center stage of the 2000 Summer Games, what with all the raucous crowds, rivalry antics and record-setting achievements of the best swimmers that the United States, Australia, the Netherlands and the rest of the world have had to offer.

But as swimming concludes Saturday evening, the venue quickly will become a historic site for another sport, as the United States meets Australia in the first gold-medal match in women's water polo.

"It's going to be a great game," said Salt Lake native Courtney Young Johnson, a veteran of the U.S. national team. "I'm excited. I think it's going to be an amazing atmosphere to play a gold-medal game."

Johnson and her American teammates were guaranteed at least a silver medal after edging world power the Netherlands 6-5 in Friday night's semifinal at the Ryde Aquatics Center. But they have their eye on something a bit more golden against the Australians.

"We want to hear our national anthem — that's what we want to hear," Johnson said.

One of the oldest U.S. players at the age of 26 and one of the shortest measuring 5-foot-4, Johnson has enjoyed a long journey through several sports and several states that has eventually resulted in realizing an Olympic dream.

Johnson played soccer and swam at Skyline High, playing water polo on the side on a local club team. Her 4.35 grade-point average earned her invites from the likes of Harvard, Brown and Cal, and she chose the latter, where she competed in both swimming and water polo. She settled on water polo after her freshman season and made the national team five years ago but watched the 1996 Atlanta Games with disappointment since women's water polo wasn't an Olympic sport.

"You just play because you love the sport," said Johnson, who stuck with water polo despite the Olympic snub. "The Olympics is definitely a bonus and something you always dream for, but the reason you play the sport is because you love it."

In 1997, the International Olympic Committee added women's water polo for the Sydney Summer Games, with the year 2000 being not only the 100th anniversary of women's inclusion in the Olympics but the 100th anniversary of water polo being a men's sport at the Summer Games.

Since then, Johnson has trained diligently while trying to keep her studies going on the side. She's due to graduate from the Santa Clara Law School in May after five years as a law student, and she's eyeing diverse postgraduate opportunities in law, the FBI or coaching when she's done.

But for now, her focus is on tonight's gold-medal match against Australia, the only team to defeat the U.S. in preliminary play. Among the thousands of cheering Aussies and Yanks will be her own contingent of supporters: the Youngs and the Johnsons, including husband, parents, in-laws, sisters and brother.

It will be a defining moment for women's water polo, and that's not lost on Johnson.

"I think we've definitely made a spot for women's water polo in the world," she said. "I think the popularity will just grow from this."

E-mail: taylor@desnews.com