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June 23, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, June 23, 2004

A recipe for success in Olympics A recipe for success in Olympics (June 23, 2004)

Estes and her USA teammates are cooking up something special

by Rick Eymer

By all reports, Stanford grad Ellen Estes cooks up the best meals on the United States women's Olympic water polo team. Estes and her teammates, who also include Stanford grads Brenda Villa, Margie Dingeldein and Julie Frank, hope to be cooking up something else at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens: a recipe for the gold medal.

"She's like Betty Crocker," Villa said of Estes' cooking. "Her desserts are the best. She makes this cheesy mushroom chicken dish which is great and she makes a really great salad. She has quite a few recipes which are really good."

Villa, who lives across the street from Estes and her roommates Heather Petri and Ericka Lorenz, is part of a four-person cooking rotation. "But if we were ranked one through four, I'd be fourth and they would be tied for first," she said.

Villa has been working on her mother's recipe for enchiladas lately, but she admits they're not quite as good just yet.

Estes thinks her roommates like her shrimp pasta dish the best, and a casual survey of the team revealed lemon bars and brownies made from scratch are the favored food.

"That's one of them," Petri said of the shrimp pasta. "She's like the Martha Stewart of the kitchen. I'll eat anything she makes. Her beef tacos are unbelievable."

"She's always trying new things," Lorenz said. "She's always calling her mom for new ideas, and she makes awesome desserts."

Estes, a five-year veteran of the senior national team, hopes this kind of team chemistry will help bring home the gold.

"I love playing with this team," she said. "It's a neat experience every game. We're a pretty close-knit group in and out of the water."

This is your Olympic women's water polo team: a group of women who feel more like sisters than teammates and they are currently the top-ranked team in the world as the Athens Olympics approach.

There's one drawback to the whole cooking thing.

"When I was her housemate for a year, we'd share cooking and cleaning duties," Dingeldein said smiling. "She's a great cook but she makes a habit of using every utensil in the kitchen. So when I'm cleaning them all, it's not that great."

Dingeldein, by the way, is partial to Estes' halibut couscous with minestrone sauce.

Team USA visited Avery Aquatic Center on Sunday night for an exhibition match against Hungary, taking an 8-6 victory as Lorenz and Amber Stachowski each scored two goals. Thalia Munro scored with 5:24 remaining to break a 6-6 tie. Estes, Villa and Robin Beauregard also scored. Frank played the entire game in the goal.

"A lot of our preparation over the past two years has been for Hungary," said USA coach Guy Baker. "It was important for us to get a good feel for them."

The Americans are involved in a whirlwind schedule as they complete their United States schedule and head to tournaments and training in Greece and Italy in less than a month.

"It's starting to get more real, more exciting," Dingeldein said. "Most of the time it's just us in the pool training so it's great to share what we're doing. Crowds like this make it more fun."

On Saturday night, the United States defeated Italy, 9-5, to win the Holiday Cup.

The team returned to Los Alamitos on Monday for a heavy training session in preparation for the FINA Women's World League Super Finals in Long Beach beginning Wednesday, which features the eight Olympic teams.

"We're still conditioning through a lot of our tournaments but it's nice to get more games in," Estes said. "We come up here for a game so we don't have to have a six-hour practice. But that's part of the training; practice is so hard that when it comes to games, it seems easier."

There seems to be a different feeling not just with the team itself but in the general community this time around. People are paying attention. In 2000, Team USA settled for the silver medal after losing to host Australia in the gold medal game. It was the first time the sport was included in the Olympics (men's water polo is the oldest, with soccer, Olympic team sport) and no one knew what to expect.

"Every team is playing at a higher level than four years ago," said Baker. "This is the sixth year it has been an Olympic sport, so the level of play is so much higher."

With the Americans ranked first in the world, expectations are higher and there's a noticeable buzz in the country. Stanford women's water polo coach John Tanner has said he thinks NBC will start paying more attention to the American women as the Olympics unfold.

"I think NBC will be drawn toward our team's progress," Tanner said. "I think these Olympics should be very interesting."

Villa has noticed a little extra attention.

"Especially with the success from last summer," she said. "USA network, which will be showing a lot of Olympic sports, televised our game (against Russia) in the Holiday Cup. We usually get people around us who are loyal and now we're starting to get people showing up everywhere. We're trying to represent the USA and we what to continue making this a national sport."

Frank, the 2003 Peter J. Cutino Award winner, presented to the top player in college, arguably has the stiffest competition at goalkeeping with Nicolle Payne, a 10-year veteran on the senior national team.

Frank has played for the national team for six years, but interrupted her service time to attend Stanford and did not make herself eligible for the 2000 team.

"I enjoy the position I am in right now," she said. "It took a little longer and was a little harder to earn my spot on the team but I've matured a lot. I needed to go back to Stanford."

Choosing between Payne and Frank may be Baker's toughest decision - one any coach would like to have.

"Jackie is an excellent goalkeeper," Baker said. "We're still trying to figure out what to do in the goal."

So how does Frank categorize this fierce competition?

"She's a sweetheart," Frank said. "I know we're competing for the same spot on the team, but I can't see any one not getting along with her. I enjoy working out with her and I couldn't pick a better goalie to work out with.

"We want our team to win the gold medal," Frank added. "That's our common goal. If she's playing better than me, props to her. We have to earn our position."

Payne and team captain Heather Moody are the only 10-year vets on the team, with Villa the next most experienced with eight years.

"It's definitely an exciting time," Villa said. "We've gone from being the underdog to being a team people look to beat. We're still preparing within the team with the same goals in mind. I listen to people who say, 'you're going to win the gold,' and I tell them we'll try to bring back the gold."

Estes takes it one step further, hoping the Americans can "start a new dynasty."

The 2000 Olympics has faded a little bit in Estes' memory, with the World Championship of last summer fresher in her mind.

"This time around, every team in the world has gotten better," Estes said. "Any one can beat anyone else. It depends on who comes to play."

Four years ago, Estes and Villa played for the gold medal one day and were talking to their professors at Stanford the next day. This year they may get a chance to let a golden experience sink in a little longer.

At least that's the recipe is supposed to read.

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