LOCALS IN LONDON
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LONDON — Abby Wambach hopped down from the second-place spot on the podium at last summer's World Cup already envisioning a rematch with Japan a year later in London — for Olympic gold.
She got it.
Penalty kicks were all that separated the Americans and Japanese that day in Frankfurt, Germany. Japan twice rallied from behind in the 2-2 game, then won 3-1 on penalty kicks to pull off the upset. The victory provided a much-needed morale boost for a nation still suffering from the devastating March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
Now these women's soccer rivals meet with the world watching again. They play for the Olympic title Thursday at Wembley Stadium.
"I think the fact that we lost the World Cup and the way that we did gives us even more passion and desire to go out and perform tomorrow," Wambach said Wednesday. "The truth is, this is going to be a great day, a great day for soccer, a great day for women's sports, and something that hopefully we'll be able to remember for the rest of our lives — and hopefully it's in a good way."
Also Thursday, the first Olympic gold medals ever in women's boxing will be awarded at the ExCel arena. U.S. middleweight Claressa Shields, at just 17, is the Americans' lone hope of a boxing championship at the London Games. She will fight in the title bout against Russia's Nadezda Torlopova after all nine U.S. men were eliminated in the first Olympic medal shutout in U.S. men's boxing history.
In track and field, no man has won back-to-back Olympic 200-meter titles. Then again, Usain Bolt is like no other man. The Jamaican superstar sprinter, looking to become "a living legend," tries for more history — and a remarkable sprint double — at the London Games.
Bolt goes for the 200 gold four days after winning the 100-meter crown Sunday in 9.63 seconds, the second-fastest time ever.
For Wambach & Co., the momentum from a thrilling last-minute overtime victory over Canada in the semifinal on Monday could come in handy.
"I've been hoping for this final from the moment I stepped off the podium in Germany," Wambach said.
Almost the entire American roster — save for forward Sydney Leroux — remembers that disappointing day. Everybody involved is determined to change the outcome.
The world No. 1 Americans are trying to win their third straight Olympic gold medal.
"It's definitely redemption, but it's also an opportunity," midfielder Carli Lloyd said. "And an opportunity to show the world that we're the No. 1 team and this game is going to be different. Every game is different. Japan's a different team, we're a different team, and we're ready to bring it."
Thanks to that emotional victory last July against the Americans, Japan is not only experienced on the big international stage, but also knows how to win on it. Japan had never previously played in the final of a major tournament, and lost its first 25 meetings with the U.S.
Coach Norio Sasaki and his players know perfectly well that the Americans are on a mission. Sasaki has said during the Olympics he believed his team was talented enough to reach the final, and his players had the grit and stamina to stay in games late.
"It's not so much that the strong wins, but whoever wins is strong, so it follows that our players are very strong," Sasaki said. "Maybe they have a greater incentive. ... (It's) how much stronger can we make our incentive to have a win and beat the United States."
London organizers said Wednesday that Wembley could break an attendance record for an Olympic women's soccer match. The 1996 Olympic final between the U.S. and China in Atlanta drew 76,489.
Wambach warns that it's not a night to let emotions and memories get in the way of great soccer.
"The Japanese team is so good, and we are so good, that it's about the soccer," she said. "And that's what's going to be so awesome about tomorrow night. We're going to watch some beautiful soccer happen, we're going to see some amazing goals scored, and hopefully people will become legends tomorrow night."
Wambach led the U.S. with four goals at the World Cup in Germany. On Wednesday, she ran into Japanese midfielder Homare Sawa in the athletes village, and they spoke briefly.
"We told each other that we were glad the other had won, because we believe that we're the top two teams in the world and we believe our fans deserve to see a great final," Wambach said.
That doesn't mean things will be quite as friendly on the field. Since women's soccer joined the Olympics in '96, the U.S. has won every Olympic tournament except for a silver in 2000 at Sydney.
It's the World Cup silver, however, that is still so fresh.
"They snatched our dream last year," American midfielder Megan Rapinoe said. "And still we have that respect for them."