Why we'll follow this team
13 June 2012
You know the Olympics can't be far away when women's water polo suddenly makes an appearance in the mainstream media, right up there in the prime territory usually reserved for footballers, footballers and more footballers.
Sophie Smith's smiling, athletic image in the Melbourne Herald Sun on the day the team for London was named was a reminder that there are many unsung would-be heroes among the 400 or so athletes who will wear the green and gold in London.
You only hear about many of the minor sports every four years and the water polo girls are no exception — but they deserve to be sent on their way with more than just a wave of acknowledgement and a routine good-luck call.
The Stingers — hands up those who knew they were called that — have been one of the genuine good-news stories from the moment they joined the party in Sydney in 2000, immediately winning the first-ever gold medal in women's water polo.
It was no flash in the pan, either — they were fourth in Athens four years later and won bronze in Bejing in 2008.
They are widely expected to bring home a medal from London, too, and given that the Australian Olympic Committee has braced itself for a significant drop in the overall haul their campaign will be followed with plenty of interest.
They are in good form, having won the Pan Pacs and the London Test Event before finishing second to the US in the World League Super Finals earlier this month.
The 13-strong team will be captained by Kate Gynther, 29 (above) who will be at her third Games. Naturally, she has her sights set high, saying: "We are going there to win gold.
"We have worked hard and we know we are capable of it."
The Stingers will always command a special place in Australia's proud Olympic history because of the way they thrust themselves into the national consciousness.
It all started long before the Games, with the Australian girls at the forefront of a long, frustrating and very determined battle to convince the International Olympic Committee that they were worth their place in the greatest show on earth.
Famously, on hearing an ICC delegation would be arriving at Sydney airport in 1995, the players met them wearing swimsuits and carrying signs of protest.
It worked, with the bigwigs relenting in 1998.
Neither party regretted it.
As Olympic historian David Wallechinsky notes, the tournament couldn't have been more exciting with every game in the round-robin stage decided by a single goal.
Australia and the US both came from behind to win their semi-finals, the locals edging ahead of Russia with just 43 seconds remaining.
The final attracted a crowd of 17,000 — imagine that — and they saw another riveting encounter with Yvette Higgins blasting home the winning goal in controversial circumstances with just over a second left on the clock.
Sport doesn't get much more entertaining than that. It was such a good game that both teams celebrated equally enthusiastically — well, almost. The Aussies might have had a slight edge there, too.
The rivalry has only intensified since. The Americans knocked Australia out of the medals in Athens and out of the race for gold in Beijing, and they have gone tit for tat whenever they have met recently.
Whatever happens, the team will make a little more history in London, thanks to Sydney player Holly Lincoln-Smith.
She and her sister Emma were both into surf lifesaving as teenagers, but Holly switched to water polo and Emma to the winter sport of skeleton, which took her to ther Vancouver winter Games two years ago.
They will now have the distinction of being the first Australian siblings to compete at the summer and winter Olympics.
Another warm story is the selection of Melbourne's Victoria Brown, who has played 175 international matches — but narrowly missed selection for Beijing.
She was Australia's player of the year in 2010 but then broke a leg, which forced her to miss the early part of 2011. But she has kept fighting back and now she has her reward.
"It is a tribute to her determination," coach Greg McFadden said.
Ron Reed for supersportswomen.com.au