What is the world's most beautiful but brutal sport? Hockey? Boxing? How about water polo, which combines ripped bodies, broken eye sockets, and hard fouls under water, where refs can't see them? Not to mention it requires nonstop swimming.
Says 36-year-old Olympic attacker Layne Beaubien: "The two fundamental parts of the sport are sex and violence. Despite that, no one has figured out how to market water polo in the States." The players have learned that if they want to appear on camera during the Olympics opening ceremonies, their best bet is to stand next to the men's basketball team.
In the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, the American men's squad scored silver medals against steep competition, losing 14–10 to Hungary in the final. It was the team's first trip to the podium in 20 years, but as 32-year-old defender Jeff Powers says, "losing the gold medal stung."
For London, Coach Terry Schroeder ranks the American team in the top half of the field, alongside Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, Spain, Italy, and Hungary. "It's going to be a battle," he says. "It can come down to a couple of breaks, or a hot goaltender." For the core members of the 13-man squad, now in their mid-thirties, this is likely their last, best shot at gold. "For as many as seven or eight guys, I think this will be their last go-round," Schroeder says. "But it's the Olympic Games – any shot is a great shot."
Water polo consists of seven players on each side. The rules are merciless. Players can't touch the bottom of the pool (which is at least two meters deep) and can hold the ball only with one hand. They're constantly treading water to lift their full torsos out of the water using the "eggbeater kick" technique, which rotates the knee so hard that it causes deterioration over time. A center stations himself two meters in front of an opponent's goal and runs the offense from there. On the American squad, that's 36-year-old Ryan Bailey, the team's most experienced veteran, who will be entering his fourth Olympics. A two-meter defender is constantly on the center's back. "Those guys have to be more physical," Bailey says. "I think they're assholes." Each team also has two attackers working the perimeter, trying to find an open shot, and two defenders, shadowing the other team's attackers. That leaves the goalie, the only player allowed to use two hands. "Goalies have to be a little crazy," Bailey says. "They get the ball thrown at their faces at 50 miles an hour. They must enjoy that, in some sick way."
In Europe water polo has professional leagues across the continent; in the U.S. it barely exists outside Southern California. That means most of the players on the team hail from the Los Angeles region and have played with and against one another for decades – in some cases, since they were nine. "There's a group of about nine of us who have been together for 12-plus years," says Adam Wright, 35. "I would do anything for these guys."
Between Olympics the team scatters to paying jobs with European clubs, logging time in countries including France, Serbia, Greece, and Russia. After living in four different countries, Bailey doesn't speak any foreign language fluently, "but I can curse out people anywhere in the world," he says.
The team's intense training program includes nine practices a week, with just Sundays off. On a double day, players lift weights for about two hours in the morning followed by two hours of conditioning in the pool. Then they come back at night for two and a half hours in the pool, focused on actually playing the game. For most of the players, water polo consumed their lives long ago. "I'm a 36-year-old water polo player with no work experience," says Bailey. "This is all I've ever done – I haven't been out of the water for more than five days in a row since I was eight." This year, to maximize their chances in London, the teammates started training together early – about six months before the Olympics, instead of six weeks. Some walked away from their European contracts to work out with the team, day after day. "None of us are playing for the money," says Beaubien.
He compares their grueling conditioning sessions to Zen Buddhism: "One of the aspects of Buddhism is doing one action repetitively, like chopping a tree. That's what happens with swimming. We go for almost three hours, and if you lose focus on each stroke, you fall behind. By hour two you've kicked into the next level of consciousness. There's something cleansing about that, and something masochistic and something Zen. You think very clear and clean thoughts." Beaubien says that playing for a gold medal sets a standard for how he lives the rest of his life: Is an activity worthy of his time and effort? "If you go after something magnificent," he says, "you have to give it your heart and soul."
• U.S. Men's Water Polo Photo Gallery (photographs by Peter Hapak for Men's Journal).