LONDON -- The best player in the game is a defender.
This does happen in the grand sweep of sports, although rarely. They are the outliers: Bobby Orr, Lawrence Taylor, Franz Beckenbauer. The list is short and exceptional, names that echo through time.
Now try this one: Maggie Steffens.
Steffens is a water polo player. Unless you live in California, you probably don't know much about her sport. And although a gold medal hangs around her neck, you probably didn't catch her name Thursday what with some Jamaican sprinter was doing something or other in the Olympic Stadium. (To even have found this story on our website, I'm guessing you clicked so often that you are a candidate for carpal tunnel syndrome.) But even if you flip to this fine and physical sport once every four years, file away the name. A Stanford-bound kid from the Bay Area came to London as the incandescent future of American women's water polo. But from the first time she touched the ball in the opening preliminary match -- she scored, of course -- Steffens metamorphosed into the present.
Steffens is 19, fresh and feisty. She is blessedly free of the thin veneer of mild disappointment -- a bronze medal in 2004 sandwiched around silvers in Sydney and Beijing -- that has coated U.S. women's water polo since the sport was added to the Olympic program in 2000. There was nothing pressing on her, except Pilar Pena Carrasco, a Spaniard who looked she was trying to use Steffens' torso as an emery board except in those moments when she wasn't trying to drown the American. Coach Adam Krikorian used "resilient" to describe his team, but the better word is buoyant. Steffens popped up from the rude ministrations of Pena Carrasco in the second quarter and scored one of her five goals against Spain in the 8-5 win, which gave Brenda Villa and Heather Petri, four-time Olympians, their eagerly anticipated gold medals.
Steffens led the tournament with 21 goals. She is a right-hander who can skim it from the perimeter or bull through a defender to get inside position in front of the goal. Steffens is preternaturally tough. In her first international match three years ago, she took a punch to the nose from an Australian, who, for all we know, has transitioned to Olympic women's boxing. Steffens, 16 at the time, swam off for a minute but lobbied to return immediately. Steffens does not back down from anything, especially the moment. Her penalty shots beat Australia in the 2010 Super final and Canada in the 2011 Pan-American Games, which gave Team USA its ticket to London. "I can't say that," said Jessica Steffens, her beaming sister and another American defender, when asked if Maggie were the best player in the world. "I'm biased."
Krikorian is not biased. He is merely cautious. He would commit no further than to say the younger Steffens was the best player in this tournament. Well, considering the tournament was the, um, Olympics and Steffens was as absurdly dominant as Orr had been at the same age -- the Bruins' No. 4 won the first of his eight Norris Trophies and was named a first-team all-star despite playing little more than half the season because of injury -- the coach probably should have gone all-in, like he did in the post-match celebration with his players in the Water Polo Arena pool.
Two days earlier, Krikorian felt less like splashing than he did he swimming back to California. In a classic case of over-coaching, he called a timeout with one second remaining in the semifinal against Australia. In fairness, this might not have been a horrible idea if the U.S. actually had the ball at the time. It didn't. (Pacem, Chris Webber.) Australia scored on the ensuing penalty because of the illegal timeout, evening the score and forcing overtime. Maggie Steffens then threw him a life preserver, scoring the first of two American goals in the extra sessions in an 11-9 win over their nemesis. After downing the upstart Spanish, who had never before qualified for the Olympics and had nothing gaudier on their national résumé than a silver in a European championship, Krikorian noted he had called just one time out -- and at the right time. "I just told myself to stand there all the way to the very end," Krikorian said, grinning. "And I was even upset how we handled the last two minutes." The dip in the pool might have been ablution.
Villa and Petri scored in their presumptive Olympic finale, but the match was owned by Steffens, who, with her water-polo family -- her father, Carlos, played collegiately at California and internationally for Puerto Rico -- had watched from the stands in Beijing when Jessica and Team USA fell to Australia in the 2008 gold-medal game.
Maggie was a monster. She scored in an extra-player situation. She scored on a penalty. She took an angled pass from her sister over the Spanish defense and whipped it into the net. She bulled to the middle, took a dunking and scored. And early in the fourth quarter a mere 14 seconds after estimable goalie Bestey Armstrong blocked a penalty, Steffens scored on a counterattack, essentially a two-goal swing early in the fourth quarter that put the American up by six goals. After Steffens' fifth goal, nothing short of a mass attack of cramps was going to prevent victory.
Villa allowed herself a smile in the final 90 seconds with the Americans up by four goals. During the five-minute halftime, she looked even more animated than Krikorian as she dispensed counsel. Villa would later score the final goal of her distinguished career, a skipper from the right side, but the prodigy --"a stud," Jessica called her sister -- outpaced the woman once labeled the Wayne Gretzky of women's water polo.
"She was just a little kid, and I didn't think much about it until she came to her first training camp, when she played like a veteran," Villa said, recalling the first time she saw Maggie play. "She is truly awesome."