MINNEAPOLIS, JULY 11 -- There is a T-shirt water polo players like to wear around the pool deck. It says, "Underwater, no one can hear you scream."

"Yeah, it's a rough sport," said Vicki Gorman, a U.S. Olympic Festival water polo player from Annapolis. "Black eyes are very common."

Water polo may be rough enough to require players to wear two bathing suits -- in case one gets ripped off -- but it is the sport of choice for four women from the Washington area who played for the East team in competition that ended today at the University of Minnesota Aquatics Center. The East was 0-6-1 after losing the bronze medal game tonight to the North, 7-5.

Kelli Billish of Bethesda, Carrie Basye of Annapolis, Tricia McGuire of Upper Marlboro and Gorman are some of the few non-Californians who play women's water polo. They all were swimmers as children, but either got bored with the routine or found themselves drawn to a team sport. They started playing with boys' teams and eventually found their way to national and international competition.

This is the Olympic Festival, so almost everyone here talks about 1992 or 1996 as if the Olympic dates already are written into their personal calendars. However, through no fault of their own, the women water polo players probably never will play in an Olympics. Unlike the men's game, the women's is not an Olympic sport.

"We've been trying," said Billish, 27, a government cartographer who has to take unpaid leave from work to compete for the U.S. national team. "We're working with our {sport} federation to get us in. We're hoping to put together a four-team tournament in Barcelona in conjunction with the 1992 Olympics, but I don't know when we'll have a chance to get into the Olympics. I don't know the politics of the situation."

Supporters of women's water polo would like to see it become an exhibition sport at the 1996 Summer Games, but the International Olympic Committee is trying to cut sports, not add them.

Billish is a veteran from Evergreen Park, Ill., who might not be around the sport if it ever gains Olympic status. But Basye and McGuire are 10 years younger and are going to be seniors in high school, and Gorman is entering her sophomore year at Bucknell.

"Hopefully, soon we'll have an Olympic team," said Basye. "But I love the sport so much, it doesn't really matter."

At the Minnesota pool, there is an underwater window where reporters and photographers can watch the games. In that aquarium-like setting, the furious nature of the game is evident. The goaltender's eggbeater kick becomes frantic as the ball approaches, the water turns white with bubbles, bathing suits are yanked and held and elbows are thrown.

"They pull and they tug and they kick," Basye said. "You come out of a game bruised, cut and with ripped suits. I've never broken anything, though."

McGuire, a student at Elizabeth Seton High in Bladensburg, played backup goaltender here. On land, she wears a splint on her left thumb because a shot bent it backward in practice the other day.

"I stopped the ball, though," said McGuire.

McGuire, Gorman and Basye play on the Naval Academy Junior Swim Club team. "I'm more of a team person," Gorman said. "Swimming is very individual. I love a team and I love the water. So water polo combines both my loves in sports."

But sports fans don't love water polo. Few outside the West know or understand it.

"Water polo doesn't get a lot of recognition here," Basye said. "We get a half-full arena. The seats are all filled for synchronized swimming."

For Billish, playing water polo has become a financial hardship. She moved to Washington five years ago after twice earning all-America honors at Slippery Rock State, a women's water polo power in the East. Until this year, she had to pay all training expenses, which included numerous trips to Southern California to train with the national team.

This year, the U.S. Olympic Committee approved some funding for Billish and others. It will pay the rent on a house she and seven other team members will occupy in California when they train the entire month of December for the world championships in Perth, Australia. It also will give them a small per diem for food.

"About $5 a day," Billish said. "But that's more than I've ever gotten. We're excited. We'll take it."

Billish is in and out of town so much, she barely can lead a normal life.

"This is hard," she said. "I call home and hear what everyone's doing and it's hard. But I figure this is the time I can do this. I can go to parties later. This always was my goal, to make the national team and travel. I don't question it. I think this will definitely be worth it."