COLUMBIA - An Olympic medal can do wonders for catching the interest of the American public, but the U.S. women's water polo team was being celebrated in Columbia even before it took the silver medal on Aug. 21 in Beijing.
Natalie Golda, the team's 26-year-old defender from California, was cheered on from the stands at the Water Cube by her whole family save one - her older brother whom she credits with getting her into the sport. Nick Golda has been in Columbia for almost four years, completing a residency at MU's School of Medicine. Golda, chief resident of the department of dermatology, said making the trip wasn't a possibility, so he's built up a local contingent of support for his sister around the office.
"Even once removed, it's more interesting if you know someone who's competing," Golda said.
Though Golda said he had to tape the matches to watch later, the broadcast schedule for water polo helped other doctors and staffers in the dermatology clinic get to see Natalie compete. Because of the 12:30 p.m. daily broadcast, Golda's co-workers were able to take advantage of the TV in the clinic's waiting room during lunch or between appointments, patient service representative Kathy Kennell said.
"They'd catch a few minutes here and there, and I'd hear them say, ‘Oh, good, I got to see her,'" Kennell said.
The excitement also spread to patients, who Golda said would tell him about their watch parties and ask about Natalie after the clinic's nurses or other staff members bragged about the doctor's sister competing on the Olympic team. He said he never had to tell any patient himself because his co-workers kept beating him to the punch.
For the past 10 years, Golda has had little trouble finding things to brag about when it comes to his sister. Natalie is just two-and-a-half years younger but has raw athletic ability that far exceeds his own, he said.
"She's got a natural athleticism ... a God-given gift," Golda said. "We went out and played golf - she destroyed me, and she doesn't even play."
Golda played water polo for his high school team, which at the beginning of his senior year started a team for women. Natalie was always "the bigger, stronger girl," and Golda said his water polo coach was anxious to recruit her for the women's team despite her lack of ability in the pool.
"She hardly could swim - only marginally," Golda said.
For many water polo competitors, the way to success was a long road usually involving club-sport play since childhood, Golda said. But after only two years, Natalie led her high school's team to a state championship. Athletically, Natalie could always hold her own, "even against the guys," benefitting her in the highly physical sport known for being on the violent side, Golda said.
"It's like an all-out wrestling match," he said, "You'll see them slugging it out above the water, but it's 10 times worse underneath."
Though she didn't say anything in her e-mails or blog about these underwater skirmishes in Beijing, Golda said during Natalie's first Olympics in 2004 she commented on the Italian women and other international teams being "much more physical." Her team won the bronze medal in Athens that year behind Italy and Greece.
Although she has been invited to come back to play at the next Olympic games in London, Golda said Natalie hasn't made a commitment yet. She'll be getting married in January, and with the wedding plans moving from the back burner, she might not make a decision until later, Golda said.
Like she did after the win in 2004, Golda said, Natalie will visit Columbia with her medal to thank all those who cheered on her team. He plans to take her around the dermatology department to introduce her to all the supporters, giving people a chance to take a picture with her silver medal, Golda said.
"She said no matter what (color) she gets, she'll bring the medal to Missouri and show it off," Golda said. "I wouldn't be surprised if she comes out as early as this fall."
Although she wasn't on staff when Natalie came the first time, Kennell said she knows some people who met Dr. Golda's sister when she was in Columbia last. She said she's excited that she'll have the chance to meet Natalie this time.
"That's history for their family," Kennell said. "I just can't imagine actually knowing someone in the Olympics."