'Phenomenal': reliving Australia's water polo gold at the Sydney Olympics

The roar from the crowd was deafening. With 1.3 seconds left on the clock, Australia's Yvette Higgins flicked her wrist and the ball sailed through the air, deflecting off the outstretched arm of USA goalkeeper Bernice Orwig, and into the net. It was over. She had scored the goal that secured a 4-3 victory and the first ever women's water polo gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

The Americans were left stunned. The cameras flashed as they bobbed in the water while their coach protested the final goal. At the other end of the pool the Australians swamped Higgins, cheering and screaming, celebrating a famous victory after a gold medal match of epic proportions.

Twenty years on, those final seconds still court controversy. To Higgins, it was a clear and legal goal, but to Maureen O'Toole, one of America's most decorated water polo players, it remains unclear. Should it have counted, or should it have been denied?

With seconds left on the clock and scores level, the bizarre scene unfolded. As the whistle blew to call a foul on America's Julie Swell, Higgins released a pass to her captain Bridgette Gusterson, who tossed it in to score. It was disallowed. As the clock ticked to 1.3 seconds, the ball was retrieved by Simone Hankin and sent back to Higgins to play the penalty. In one motion -- at least according to the Australian - she pegged the ball through the defence and into the goals. The game was over, but while the Australians celebrated the Americans challenged.

Under the rules, a foul inside seven metres of the goal is considered a free throw - it must be passed before you can shoot. But if the penalty is awarded outside seven metres, you can, in one motion, shoot for goal.

"It's very technical," Higgins explained to ESPN. "We had to get the ball out of the goal and back to the mark where I was, which was outside seven metres. While my teammate was retrieving the ball from the goal, I knew that everyone was thinking that the game would go into extra time. I could distinctly see 1.3 seconds on the clock, and I thought 'OK, I'm outside the seven-metre mark, if I get the ball, I can shoot in one motion'. No one's ready, everyone's focused on going to extra time.

"But I think the technical thing was, the Americans thought, if you get a foul outside seven metres, you have to shoot in one motion; you can't balk, you can't fumble, you have to shoot in one motion. The Americans, they said I baulked with my hand, my wrist. But if you look at the replay, I caught the ball and I slicked my wrist back and I shot in one motion.

"It's hard to explain. But if I was a coach, I would be saying that's not a goal, that's not allowed; like you'd do anything to make an excuse over it. When you hear the Americans get interviewed, I think they have a different perspective of it, I think it's a bit of a touchy subject."

Just metres away from Higgins, O'Toole watched the ball as it sailed into the goal. While she's moved on from the moment, it's clear she remains perplexed by those dying seconds.

"It was just a really weird last two seconds of the game. I'll preface it. I have absolutely no hard feelings about what happened, but it ended without clarity. Did that goal count, did it not count? It was just a frustrating way for it to end.

"I was in the pool when it happened and we were all saying 'leave her' cause it's her free throw, we wanted her to shoot, but the referee called it a goal. In our mind it was her free throw, not a shot at goal outside seven metres, but it's a very fine line.

"I remember asking myself a lot after that game, if I had thrown that shot and scored would I call it back? Heck no! I wouldn't have said that."

The nail-biting final was the culmination of years of petitioning, exhibition matches and players around the world appealing to the International Olympic Committee to include women's water polo in the Olympics. For 100 years the men's game had taken part, in fact it's the longest played team sport at the Games, but for decades the women's sport was denied access. It was the Australian women's team's endless campaigning that finally saw Juan Antonio Samaranch, the then IOC president, and the IOC committee agree to the sports inclusion for Sydney.

"I definitely remember the petitions that we had to attend," Higgins said. "I distinctly remember turning up to Sydney airport in our swimmers -- which was quite embarrassing -- and waiting for the head of the International Olympic Committee to turn up. He obviously took the back-door exit.

"I also remember when we had to crash a meeting in the city at that time, when they came out to look at the Olympic venues. I think from that moment, when Liz Weekes, Sally Weekes, Kirstin Giddy and myself, when we crashed that meeting, that was the turning point of actually getting water polo into the Olympics."

Their inclusion paid off. While there were only six nations competing, each match was a spectacle that had fans flocking to Ryde Aquatic Centre for the preliminaries, and later 18,000 poured into the Sydney Olympic Aquatic Centre to watch the decider.

Arriving at the pool that Saturday night, with a boisterous home crowd was "phenomenal" according to Higgins.

"I can't explain the crowd, to see that many people supporting you, to come watch you play. You don't get a bigger crowd than that at a water polo game. Normally we're there at 5am and there's one person there supporting us. When it comes to the finals and having that number of supporters there was just phenomenal, you get goosebumps when you think about it.

"I can still remember when we were receiving our medals, just going 'look at this', telling my teammates 'look at this crowd, we will never get this again'."

The final lived up to all expectations. It was a hard-fought, low-scoring tussle, that saw the lead change three times as both sides battled for the gold. It was clear the match would go down to the wire as both sides continued to fight for every ball and heading into the final quarter the score remained even at 2-apiece.

Only minutes into the final term, Australia's Naomi Castle scored to give the home side a slight edge. It looked certain to be the decisive moment as the match headed into the final minutes and neither side could get the ascendency. But with less than a minute left, the match moved to another level.

To a cacophony of cheers, the Americans called a timeout with just 25 seconds left on the clock. The players were forced to come in close as their coaches attempted to shout instructions over the noise. The Australians were up and had only one job to do - keep USA from scoring.

"I remember it was very hard to hear the coach because of the noise, and I distinctly remember his tactics and what we had to do." Higgins said.

"Myself and two others - Bronwyn [Mayer] and Simone Hankin - were on the bench at that time, we're more of attacking players, so he obviously put the defensive team on."

On the other side of the pool, Team USA were getting their own tactics; score or get an ejection.

"You couldn't hear a thing; it was so loud in there," O'Toole said. "I remember exactly because we had run a play, and the play was kind of all convoluted but if it didn't work, I was told to go straight in and either score or get an ejection. It was that simple."

Attempting to shut down O'Toole, Australia's Karyn Woods was ejected, opening up Brenda Villa who amazingly evaded everyone and bobbed the ball into the goal to tie it all up.

"With 13 seconds we scored to tie it. I remember it clear as day Brenda scoring, because I was thinking 'this is epic; we're going to go into overtime'. The first ever Olympics and this is going to overtime. It was great, we trusted each other, and we knew we just couldn't foul."

"It was like slow-motion when that goal went in," Higgins said. "It was like 'Oh my goodness, no'. It was hard to take, just thinking 'what if?', you're on the edge of your seat saying, 'please don't score that, please don't score'. Obviously, they scored. I remember that moment our coach looked at the bench and by chance he put all three of us in the water."

With just seconds left on the clock, USA was certain the match would go into overtime, but Higgins and Australia were after the win. Earning the foul outside the seven metres, Higgins was in position and the rest, as they say, is history.

"I got a beautiful pass from Simone Hankin, I wouldn't have been able to score that goal if it wasn't as accurate. If it was a high pass or a low pass, you'd have to get the ball and time would be wasted and we'd end up in extra time.

"For me I'd dreamed of this moment, I'd practiced this moment every day. I'd be the one staying behind at the end of every training session for an extra hour, an extra half an hour, and the team would call me to get on the bus. I just practiced that shot, it came naturally, it looked natural and it's just preparing yourself for that moment.

"I just thought 'Oh my god it went in. Thank you! It's in, it's in, it's over!'. The pressure, the stress, everything that was on your shoulders just comes off. It's done, the lead up is done. It was such a long lead up to the Olympics and the pressure that was internalised. You didn't realise you had that pressure, but it was just finished.

"The thought of going into extra time would exhaust us; mentally and physically.

"It was just over, there was a lot of relief. The chapter's over, the book's finished, we can move on, we can move forward."

Climbing onto the pool deck after the victory, the moment is still ingrained into her mind. Her teammates surrounded her as Australian flags were handed over and the crowd thundered in celebration.

"I still visualise it; the crowd, the roar and the noise, you couldn't hear anything except for the roar of the crowd. There're so many people there to support you and to be there and to give you that confidence and give you that moral boost. You train every day and sometimes you question yourself 'why am I getting up at 4:30 in the morning, to get on pool deck at 5am?'. It all comes to a head, and it comes to a head for a reason. It was just exciting. You don't see the behind scenes of the everyday slog that you do, all the sacrifices that you make, and it all comes to a head for a moment, and that moment, it can't ever be taken away from you."

After 23 years in the pool, the gold medal match was the official end of O'Toole's career. At 39-years-old, she was the oldest and the only water polo player over 30 at the Games. Twenty years on, she's living in Australia but recently relocated to Mollymook, three hours south of Sydney, due to the COVID pandemic to be with her daughter who was eight years old at the Olympics. She has become close friends with several players from the Australian team that beat her that night, including Higgins, and has been a mainstay coaching at Sydney's Drummoyne water polo club.

Only 22 when she scored the controversial goal, Higgins was young and humble, refusing to take the accolades for a win that she says included "13 of us that put it all together and held it all together". After two more years playing in Italy and at just 24, Higgins called time on her career and returned to Sydney to become a high school teacher and a water polo coach at Sydney University and Drummoyne.

"What's quite phenomenal is when I hear people say, 'I remember your goal; I was here'. They remember the moment, or where they were when they watched that winning goal. It's nice to hear those stories, it makes me chuckle a little bit."