NEW YORK-They have power. They have speed. Now, the women's softball team has three months to discover if it has the chemistry to win a third consecutive gold medal.
Coach Mike Candrea, who took a leave of absence from the University of Arizona to lead the team, has made it clear: He will be satisfied with nothing less than a top-of-the podium finish on Aug. 23.
"The expectations are high," he said. "It's us against the rest of the world, and the rest of the world is getting better."
On a recently completed barnstorming tour, the U.S. team outscored its collegiate opponents, 229-9. It had similar results on a three-week trip to Italy. Tomorrow, it embarks on a campaign in 23 U.S. cities called, "Aiming for Athens," before leaving for the Summer Games.
But team chemistry is still a question mark.
"My concern is to close the gap ... to become more of a team," Candrea said.
The 2000 squad tested those characteristics in Sydney, Australia. The team entered the Summer Games with a 110-game winning streak, which was quickly shattered by three consecutive losses.
Candrea said that the relationship between teammates helped them fight back and take two must-win games, setting up a medals-round sweep of China, Australia and Japan.
In 2000, the average age of the 18 members of the U.S. squad was 27.6. This year, it's 25.6.
Lisa Fernandez, 33, the cornerstone of the two previous teams who is the team's No. 1 pitcher and bats cleanup, says the youth movement "has brought a new balance and energy."
And, the women hope, another gold medal.
Shirley aims high
When sprinters line up for the 100-meter dash at the U.S. Track and Field Olympic Trials on July 18, one disabled athlete will be in the blocks.
Marlon Shirley, 26, will compete in Athens as a Paralympian, but has already set being a member of the Olympic track team as his next goal.
"It would mean everything to line up against the world's best and compete as an equal," said Shirley, who runs on a C-shaped carbon fiber leg and trains in Colorado Springs, Colo.
He already holds the world record for a below-the-knee amputee in the 100 meters, breaking the 11-second barrier with a run of 10.97 seconds at last year's Utah Summer Games in Cedar City. He competed against a field of eight able-bodied runners and finished second.
His record run earned him the 2003 ESPY Award as Best Disabled Athlete and the unofficial title of world's fastest amputee.
The world record for able-bodied men is 9.78 seconds by Tim Montgomery.
Shirley lost his left foot at 5, when he jumped from the back of a lawn mower and his foot slipped under the machine. He had another four inches of that leg amputated after a high school football accident.
The athlete, who was an orphan from 3 until he was adopted at 10, also holds the world disabled record in the long jump at 22 feet, 3 3/4 inches. He won the gold medal in the 100 meters and a silver medal in the high jump at the 2000 Paralympics in Sydney
Shirley hopes to shave two-tenths of a second off his 100-meter time so that he can qualify to run on the European Grand Prix circuit. By dropping other events, such as the 200-meter sprint and the long and high jumps, he believes he can further lower his world record.
"There will come a time in the not-too-distant future when 10.97 will be a bad day at the track for me," he said. "I think I can run a 10.44."
Hot fashion trend
The founder of the company that outfits the U.S. Olympic team insists his clothing designs are "all about the athletes" with a "stylish and bold look."
But at the unveiling of the Roots clothing line Wednesday night at the NBC souvenir store in Rockefeller Center in New York, it appeared that if the fashion gods are sweating the details, the athlete's job is to just plain sweat.
Heat-holding navy blue is the predominant color, rather than the baby blue used at the 2002 Winter Games. Athletes at the unveiling modeled a lot of sweat shirts and sweat pants - perfect for lounging around the athletes' village, where daytime temperatures are expected to be in the mid-90s in August.
And, in an attempt to duplicate the inexplicable popularity of the Winter Games' most sought-after accessory - the fleece beret a la Monica Lewinsky - Roots has come up with a dark blue knit version, which should feel really good under the blazing Mediterranean sun.
The best bet to replace the beret as the top-selling item is a white "bucket" beach hat, which reporters have already dubbed, "the Gilligan rally hat."
At least the U.S. athletes are better off than the Australian team, whose uniforms are made of wool.
Games at a glance
When: Aug. 13-29
Where: Athens, Greece
TV: NBC, MSNBC, CNBC, Bravo