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OLYMPIC LIFE BEGINS AT 39 FOR O'TOOLE

Three years ago, Maureen O'Toole was reading the newspaper in the kitchen of her home in Piedmont, Calif., when she came across an astonishing bit of news. One of the briefs said women's water polo had been made an Olympic sport.

O'Toole couldn't believe it. There had to be some mistake. Her sport had been excluded from the Games for almost a century. She had retired for the second time, in 1994, resigned to the fact that it would never gain Olympic status. But later that night, one of her friends in water polo called and assured her it was true.

Instantly, she realized her life was about to change again. "There was no indecision," O'Toole said Tuesday afternoon. "I was coming out of retirement."

This would not be easy. When the 2000 Olympics rolled around, she would be 39 years old. She would have to give up her job coaching the women's team at Cal-Berkeley. She would have to move away from her boyfriend, Russ, and her eight-year-old daughter, Kelly. She would have to train very, very hard.

But what else could she do? She had played on the national team for most of her adult life. She was widely considered the greatest women's water polo player of all time. From the time she took up the sport as a little girl, she had dreamed of playing in the Olympics.

"I started playing on the national team when I was 17," she said. "Every single Olympics that went by, I thought they were going to add it. It was always hard to watch the Games, knowing I was at the top of my sport but couldn't participate in the ultimate competition."

She moved to Los Angeles from Northern California. She moved in with her mother, Jan, and began preparing herself to play against women 10, 15, even 20 years younger. She helped the American team earn an Olympic berth last spring. This week, she and her teammates are in Sydney as one of the favorites to win the first-ever women's water polo gold.

On Tuesday, the U.S. lost to the host Australians, 7-6, dropping to second behind the Aussies in the six-team competition. The Americans stayed there as O'Toole scored the team's first goal and assisted on another in a 9-6 victory today over Kazakstan.

The victory sends the U.S. into the medal round against the Netherlands, which it beat earlier in the week. Top-seeded Australia will play Russia in the other semifinal.

Watching the U.S.-Australia match at the Ryde Aquatic Center, you had to wonder why they didn't add the women's game years earlier. Men's water polo has been an Olympic sport since the year 1900. Why did it take the IOC an entire century to let the women into the pool?

"I've been asked that a lot," O'Toole said. "But I really don't know. I do know that back in the 1930s and '40s, water polo was played by women in our country. They stopped it because it was too physical, then added it again. Maybe that's why it wasn't in the Olympics."

Until 1964, there were no women's team sports of any kind in the Games. Women were considered too fragile for the physical sports. But that soon changed. The rise of girls sports in the U.S. and the "Women's Olympics" of 1996 spurred the addition of several new women's sports for 2000, including water polo.

You only need watch a few minutes of women's water polo to understand how physically demanding it is. Players never touch bottom in the seven-foot deep pool. The sport requires the endurance and technique of a top swimmer, the strength of a rugby player, the passing and dribbling skills of a basketball star.

Scorers battle for position in front of the goal, like hockey players. There are a lot of penalties ("exclusions") and most scoring is done on the power play. There is considerable mugging involved. Imagine Dave Andreychuk jostling for position in front of the goalie, then suddenly disappearing under water. That's how rough water polo can get.

Several times in the Games, the clutching and grabbing has resulted in pieces of swimsuits being ripped off bodies. Early in the week, Australia's Naomi Castle was battling for position when a Russian ripped a swatch of swimsuit. Castle played for about 90 seconds with her breast exposed. Then she jumped out of the pool, covered up and changed into a new suit. Word is, the more liberal countries (all right, the Netherlands) will play topless for long stretches rather than put their team at a disadvantage by stopping to change. No such problems occurred in Tuesday's match, which was physical but devoid of nudity. The Australians, spurred on by their exuberant, green-and-yellow clad home fans, scored the game-winner with 2:56 left when captain Bridgette Gusterson beat U.S. goalie Nicolle Payne from the slot -- the "hole" in water polo parlance.

O'Toole, who scored the game-winner against the Netherlands in the opener, didn't score against Australia. She comes off the bench, but she is still a dangerous player, and literally an extra coach in the pool.

"She's been a great inspiration to me," said 22-year-old Heather Petri. "She taught me a lot as my coach at Berkeley and now as a teammate. I can't believe her stamina. It's amazing how much she's been able to persevere through."

O'Toole's mother, Jan, said Maureen dreamed of playing in an Olympics from the moment she began playing water polo as a little girl. She said one of the reasons Maureen came back was so her own daughter could see her play.

"Kelly is very proud of her," she said. "It's been hard on her as a child and on Maureen as a mom. She hasn't been able to be a mom like she should be at times. But I've been there to help. We're a really close family and we support her every way we can."

When O'Toole came out of the aquatic center to meet her family members, her left shoulder was packed in ice because of a bruise. She looked like Randy Johnson after a tough start. Kelly ran up to her mom and they hugged for over a minute.

"I'm so glad to have her here," said O'Toole, who will retire for good after the Olympics. "I'm not sure she totally understands this, but one day she'll look back at this as an incredible experience. Actually, what she really wants is to meet Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain."

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