BEIJING - They came to the Beijing Olympics as a team trying to find its way, still adjusting to a new coach and each other, still smarting from a loss that brought humiliation on and off the field.
They dropped their first game, hardly an auspicious start for a country that had lost only one other in three Olympics. But bit by bit, game by game, they came together, figuring out what it would take to win.
On Thursday night, the U.S. women's soccer team stood as one, Olympic gold medals around their necks, champions once again.
'Vindicated? I feel great, I feel amazing. I just won a gold medal,' said goalkeeper Hope Solo, whose banishment at last year's World Cup symbolizes the struggles these Americans have had and without whom they wouldn't have won this game.
Solo made save after save to keep the United States in the game, and Carli Lloyd scored in the sixth minute of extra time to give the United States a 1-0 victory over Brazil and the gold medal for a third time in four Olympics.
It was the first victory in a major tournament for new coach Pia Sundhage, who took over less than nine months ago.
'It was hard, and this win wasn't just down to my goal,' Lloyd said. 'It was only achievable with the team we have and that we played for each other.'
United now, the Americans were ripped apart at last year's World Cup, also in China.
Though Solo had allowed only two goals in four World Cup starts and had a shutout streak of nearly 300 minutes going, then-coach Greg Ryan decided to sit her for the semifinal against Brazil and play veteran Briana Scurry. The move was a disaster, and the United States - a favorite to win the tournament - was humbled 4-0, its worst loss ever at a World Cup.
Solo lashed out at Ryan and was banished. A month later, Ryan was fired.
"I went through hell. A lot of people did,' Solo said. 'But I feel stronger in the end. I know it sounds crazy, but I'm glad I went though it. I learned a lot about myself.'
And she has a gold medal as the result.
After the game ended, Solo sprinted back out onto the field, a gaudy imitation gold medal around her neck, a phone to her ear and a bright smile on her face. She closed her eyes when the national anthem began playing, and bounced proudly and gripped her medal when the team posed for pictures afterward.
Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor, who have never lost a set in the games, overcame steady rain, the partisan crowd and China's Wang Jie and Tian Jia 21-18, 21-18 Thursday for their second straight beach volleyball gold medal. The duo has won 108 consecutive matches, a streak that could end soon because both plan to start families.
'We might be back,' May-Treanor said. 'We want our kids to see us play.'
Hopefully in better conditions, though. Both Americans said it was the hardest continuous rain they've ever played in.
'The rain makes it better. We felt like warriors out there,' said Walsh, known as 'Six Feet of Sunshine.'
While the masterful U.S. pair was extending its dominance in the sand, the equally untouchable softball squad got, well, touched. Make that knocked down and out in the gold medal game by Japan 3-1.
Losing for the first time since 2000, the United States was denied a chance for a fourth straight gold medal in the sport's last appearance in the Olympics for at least eight years - and maybe for good. The International Olympic Committee voted baseball and softball off the schedule for the London Games.
Yukiko Ueno, Japan's remarkably resilient right-hander, shut down the Americans, who had won 22 straight Olympic games - usually in routs. The U.S. team also had some sloppy fielding in, well, sloppy conditions.
Diana Taurasi scored 21 points and Tina Thompson added 15 to help the U.S. women pull away from Russia 67-52 to make the gold medal game against Australia, which routed China 90-56.
'We were ready for this test, and it was a test,' U.S. point guard Sue Bird said. 'They played a great game. Even when we weren't making our shots, they seemed to be making everything. We never got rattled. We stayed poised and our defense really led us through this.'
Track and field
More disappointment for the Americans - the men and the women - particularly in the relays. Both teams dropped the baton, meaning the Americans would go 0-for-6 in the sprints for the first time.
'I take full blame for it,' Tyson Gay said of his bad exchange with third-leg runner Darvis Patton. 'I kind of feel I let them down.'
About 25 minutes later, women's anchor Lauryn Williams flubbed her exchange with Torri Edwards, who stared in disbelief at the baton sitting on the track. At the 2004 Olympics, Williams started running too early and missed a handoff from Marion Jones in the final.
China is 7-for-7 after Chen Ruolin rallied on her last dive to earn four 10s, winning the gold medal in women's 10-meter platform. Only one diving event remains: men's platform.
Chen totaled 447.70 points off the high board. China had not won the women's event since 1996.