She's a boisterous sydney university student who likes the beach, dyeing her hair and, as teammate Debbie Watson describes it, being "a little bit naughty." But there was nothing flippant or light-hearted about Yvette Higgins on Saturday night, when, with just over a second left in the game, the five-year veteran of the Australian women's water polo team hurled a power shot past the American defenders to win gold.
The heart-stopping throw from the left-handed Higgins also won a place for the Australian team in the history books. The sport's women made their debut at these Games and, for Australia, a better contest could not have been scripted.
After battling its way through the six-team contest with only one loss, Australia overcame Russia in their Sept. 22 semi-final after a magnificent fightback: the winning goal was scored by captain Bridgette Gusterson with only 43 sec. left. Coach Istvan Gorgenyi called it a "miraculous win-and the girls made the miracle happen with their hearts and their skills."
And yet the next day's final ended with an even more incredible "miracle." Tough defending by both sides made it the lowest-scoring game of the competition. As the clock struck off the final seconds, Australia was in front, 3-2. But with 13 sec. to go, America's Brenda Villa tied the game. The clock was restarted; the capacity crowd screamed. Then American center back Julie Swail was sent to the 20-sec. exclusion zone for a foul on Gusterson in front of the Australian goal. There was 1.3 sec. left on the clock.
In the blur of movement following the clock restart, Higgins took possession and whipped the ball into the net. "I looked up at the clock, didn't think about anything else and knew I had to take the shot," she said. "So I did it."
The crowd and Higgins' teammates erupted. So did American coach Guy Baker, initially questioning the legality of Higgins' shot (the referee's decision was confirmed by the sport's governing body). But despite water polo's ferocious reputation-ripped costumes are commonplace and players routinely engage in highly physical duels while treading water-relations between the two coaches couldn't be sweeter. Gorgenyi spoke of Baker as "the most beautiful I have ever met-so correct and fair," while Baker admitted he respected the Australians so much he had been awake since 2 a.m. readying himself for the game. In the end, Gusterson said, it was sheer tenacity that won Australia the gold medal: "You can never, ever give up hope in a game of water polo."
Just as they refused to despair in the pool, so the Australians had refused over the years to abandon their fight for Olympic recognition. The decision in 1997 to include the sport at the Sydney Games tempted champion center forward Debbie Watson, 35, out of retirement. Saturday's gold medal win, which Gusterson dedicated to women players of the past, was "a fairytale ending," said Watson. Her career may have come to a close but Watson and her teammates have given the sport they love a fairytale Olympic beginning.