By Joshua Schneyer

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - The U.S. women's gymnastics team got far more of the limelight, and household names like swimmer Michael Phelps got immeasurably more TV coverage.

But no U.S. Olympic team, or individual athlete, outmatched competitors as resoundingly as a women's water polo squad that won the gold medal on Friday.

By a score of 12-5, the U.S. steamrolled Italy, an experienced team that had gone undefeated in Rio until meeting the United States in the final.

With the victory, U.S. women's water polo claimed their second straight Olympic gold, becoming the first ever to repeat the feat.

U.S. men and women have won gold medals in nine different sports so far during the Rio Games, but in no other sport has their performance been so dominating.

Following his team's loss a stunned Italian coach, Fabio Conti, summed up the U.S. team's abilities this way: "They are from out of this universe."

Water polo is a rough-and-tumble game where, during 32 minutes of sprinting, grappling, shooting and gasping for air, athletes never touch the bottom of the pool.

Much of the highly physical action takes place beneath the pool surface, a reason why the game does not typically lure millions of prime-time viewers.

But on Friday, Team USA put on quite a show in the same pool where Phelps had swum for roaring crowds a week earlier.

The team's recent record, including a winning streak of at least 22 games, has rarely been matched in the history of the sport, which only added women's play to the Olympics in 2000.

During a Rio Games in which the U.S. women played six matches, they outscored their opponents by more than 2-to-1.

Against Italy, eight of its 13 players scored, despite the European team's reputation for stellar defence.

With 12 U.S. goals in the final, it was the highest goal count ever by a women's water polo team in a gold medal match, and the widest margin of victory.

Their dominance is more remarkable considering 9 of the 13 Team USA players were competing in their first Games, and the average age of players on the team is 23.

MOURNING A BROTHER AND GOING FOR GOLD

The leader of the U.S. crew is Adam Krikorian, who also led the American women's team to victory in London in 2012.

To prevail here, the tight-knit team had to play through tragedy. Krikorian, 42, was told on Aug. 3, just before the Games began, that his older brother Blake had died suddenly of a heart attack in California.

Krikorian left to be with family, but rejoined the team a few days later.

"It would be very selfish of me to let what happened to me personally and my family ... the grieving and the mourning, affect what we've set out to do," Krikorian said on Friday.

Many of the team's players, he said, had trained their whole lives for a chance at Olympic gold.

Following the U.S. victory, the players hung their medals around Krikorian's neck. The coach fought back tears as he spoke to the press.

"I think it's going to hit me pretty hard later today," he said. "How hard this journey has been."

Team captain Maggie Steffens, who also helped win gold in London, said the victory proves that U.S. women's water polo is going through a golden age.

"What we did is really hard to do," Steffens said.

Of Krikorian's resolve, she said "I would probably be bawling in a corner ... he really kept it together."

(Reporting By Joshua Schneyer; Editing by Jan Harvey and Meredith Mazzilli)