Just 26 years old, Maggie Steffens stays hungry to continue building on her already immense legacy
Maggie Steffens, arguably the world’s greatest water polo player, feels the burn after a grueling three-hour workout recently with Team USA.
Coach Adam Krikorian instructs the athletes to take a swim test then rotate through five different stations that challenge different body parts.
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“I am tired!” Steffens says. “We are being pushed by our coach, but you’re also pushed to the limit every day by your team.”
The 2020 Tokyo Olympics are 13 months away, and the obscenely decorated Steffens — two Olympic gold medals, including one MVP, six FINA World League Super Final gold medals and two NCAA titles at Stanford — still battles nerves about securing her spot next summer. The U.S. clinched its spot at the Olympics with a 10-9 defeat of Italy last month at the latest FINA World League Super Final, but the final roster won’t be announced by Krikorian until late spring.
“Yes, I’ve been to two Olympics, but my dream is to still be an Olympian,” Steffens says. “That dream hasn’t changed. We have an incredible roster, the most talented we’ve ever had. So you try to make it impossible for (the coach) not to take you.”
That’s never been a problem for Steffens in the past.
There’s the Mannings in football. The Currys in basketball. The Williams in tennis. The Andrettis in auto racing. And the Steffens in water polo.
Her father Carlos left Puerto Rico and was a three-time All-American at the University of California at Berkeley, leading the Golden Bears to the 1977 NCAA championship; her uncle Peter Schnugg was a two-time All-American at Cal; her older sister Jessica helped the U.S. win the 2012 Olympic silver medal; and her sister Teresa and brother Charlie also competed in water polo at Cal.
Carlos didn’t force Maggie to play water polo. But there were subtle signs all around.
“There were old water polo balls all around the house,” Maggie says. “We’d play basketball, soccer and keep away with used water polo balls. So I was familiar with the ball and the idea of (the sport).”
Maggie tried lots of sports, including swimming, soccer, basketball and gymnastics. And while her father didn’t force water polo upon her, he was tough on his children and demanded they be proud of their family name.
“He made sure we were always our best self,” she says. “He was toughest on me when I wasn’t giving my best effort when I wasn’t being the best teammate I could have been, when I wasn’t focused.”
The first high-profile female athlete Maggie remembers looking up to was soccer legend Mia Hamm.
“I always wore No. 9,” she says, referring to Hamm’s longtime jersey number. “Soccer was my dream. I originally wanted to be the next Mia Hamm. I thought, ‘I can totally do it!’ ”
Maggie played at a high level and won some state and regional tournaments.
"Soccer felt like it would be my pathway,” she recalls.
Then she met Maureen O’Toole — and everything changed.
O’Toole was a longtime member of the U.S. women's water polo team. Along with her husband Jim Purcell, she founded the Diablo Water Polo Club, which Maggie’s older siblings were a part of. O’Toole showed Maggie her Olympic silver medal (from the 2000 Sydney Games), and Maggie was captivated.
“I was drawn to (water polo) because I love water,” Maggie says, “and water polo combines all the things I loved.”
The balance of gymnastics. The athleticism and strategy of basketball and soccer.
In fact, Maggie played basketball until late in middle school and soccer until she was 14. But in high school, she focused on swimming — she was, naturally, an excellent freestyle sprinter — and water polo. Her high school water polo team excelled, though there was no state championship to vie for. Then, by 15 years old, she was invited to train with the national team.
She got to be around her big sister Jessica, one of the team’s stars. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the U.S. advanced to the gold medal match but were upset 9-8 by the Netherlands, thanks largely to the inspired seven-goal outburst from Daniëlle de Bruijn.
“My sister was amazing in that tournament,” Maggie recalls. “She is my biggest role model.”
Moments after the game concluded, though, Maggie’s father looked at her.
“Now it’s your turn,” he told her.
She became a full-time member of the national team the next year.
In 2009, though, Jessica was sidelined for an extensive period after undergoing shoulder surgery. But the two quickly joined forces as the U.S. started preparation for the 2012 London Olympics. Maggie didn’t feel any pressure joining a veteran, star-studded roster. She downplays her role.
“A lot of it was, ‘Right place, right time,’ ” she says modestly. “And I had my sister, who was my secret, superpower.”
But the numbers don’t lie: Maggie scored seven goals in her first match, which tied an Olympic record.
“I always remember each game,” she says. “But when I got out of the water, I did an interview, and they told me I had seven goals. I had no idea! I felt like I had blacked out.”
Perhaps it was the adrenaline or the countless nights she dreamed of her Olympic debut.
Yet her torrid run continued, as she scored an Olympic record 21 goals for the tournament. She was, fittingly, named the tournament MVP.
More importantly, the U.S. won the gold medal.
“The best moment was getting to share when we were on the podium and listening to our anthem,” Maggie recalls. “I looked up at her — because she’s taller than me — and my eyes were googly eyes for her. I thought, ‘Holy crap, we got to achieve this incredible dream together!’ ”
Then the domination commenced: FINA medals galore, NCAA titles at Stanford, and defending the Olympic gold medal in Rio, when she paced the U.S. with 17 goals.
“What makes her better than most, if not everyone, is her vision — her ability to see the whole pool, to make the right decisions with the ball, delivering to the right people at the right time,” Krikorian told the New York Times in 2018. “All the great ones share similar attributes — Gretzky, Magic Johnson, they’re the best at making everyone around them better.”
That’s not a surprise, given how passionately Maggie watches other sports. She rattles on and on about the ball movement of the Golden State Warriors and FC Barcelona.
“It’s about passing lanes,” she says. “You are always trying to be in a passing lane to open up shots.”
Maggie prides herself on her creativity and her toughness.
“I’m not the tallest, strongest, biggest and fastest player, I can definitely tell you that,” Maggie says. “But I think about how I bring intelligence to the game, to be a playmaker. How can I be one or two steps ahead of my opponent?”
That advantage can be earned by watching film and playing in more games, including against community college male water polo players.
“If I’m not stronger, faster and bigger,” she says of playing against males, “how can I win this challenge?”
After playing professionally in Italy, Spain and Greece, Maggie became the first member of the U.S. women’s national team to get an invitation to play in Hungary, where the most passionate water polo fans reside.
Though she just turned 26, Maggie isn’t looking too far ahead. She’s co-founded a company, and she’s started to work on a masters degree at Stanford. But her focus is squarely on making the 2020 U.S. Olympic team and defending the gold medal once again.
“I’m taking it one step at a time,” Maggie says. “It helps me to stay present.”