After winning water polo gold at 19, Steffens ready for more

STANFORD, Calif. (AP) When Maggie Steffens learned that a 2-year-old girl in Chicago had posed poolside with a stern game face and deemed herself the next Steffens, the U.S. water polo star immediately played along in the fun.

She dug through her costume box and found a colorful tutu, which she paired with a navy blue princess swimsuit she happened to have sitting around at home. She took her own photo to match little Naevia Escalante, even down to the ball held under her right arm, then sent a side-by-side shot of the two pictures to USA Water Polo.

It became a huge hit on social media.

Steffens posted their pictures on Twitter and Instagram, praising the toddler's focused expression. ''She has reminded me of when I first fell in love with the sport myself (hash)inspiration (hash)twins You're welcome on my team any day!''

''It inspired me and reminded me of when I was that young and finding my passion,'' Steffens said this week.

She returned from London nearly three years ago with 21 Olympic goals and a gold medal to her name at just 19 and immediately wondered what was next.

Now back at Stanford, she has found her niche, balancing her studies as a science, technology and society major and trying to repeat as NCAA champion after the Cardinal captured their third championship in four years last season.

''She has grown a lot. That experience in itself, I know she's always believed in herself - you can't make it to where she's made it without believing in yourself - but that experience gave her a wealth of knowledge and sense of confidence that has helped her be even better in all the areas she was already very good at it,'' said U.S. women's water polo coach Adam Krikorian.

''You could argue that despite her age, she was a veteran at the Games in 2012. She's one of those rare athletes who truly makes everyone around them better.''

A veteran ''as a 21-year-old,'' Steffens notes with a chuckle. By this summer, she will switch gears again for the run up to Rio de Janeiro in 2016. Steffens will defer her senior season at Stanford to focus on the Olympics.

Not that she's getting too far ahead of herself.

''I'm a very in-the-moment type person,'' Steffens said. ''That's something I try to live by.''

When she goes to Rio - ''knock on wood,'' Steffens cautions - she will be close to finished with her major with four or five classes remaining, which she hopes to get done in a quarter or two.

As a first-time Olympian, she scored five of her 21 goals in the championship game as the United States beat Spain 8-5 for the Americans' first women's water polo gold medal. The U.S. had endured two heartbreaking silvers, in 2000 and `08, and a bronze in 2004.

Steffens cherished the time playing alongside her older sister, Jessica, a two-time Olympic defender for the U.S. and former Stanford player.

The 2014 FINA Women's Water Polo Player of the Year, Steffens walks around Stanford's tree-lined campus and blends right in with other world-class athletes and Olympians.

Not far from the East Bay suburb where she grew up, Steffens is thankful to have the Stanford community to keep her grounded, motivated and committed to living a well-rounded life.

''Training for London, my whole body and soul was there,'' she said. ''There was nothing else I wanted except for that one goal, and to get it with my team, and once that's done, `Wow, where's all my breathing and my living going now?' Luckily I have Stanford to kind of create that transition.''

She is taking some graduate-level classes in the design school. Last fall, during her toughest quarter yet, she worked on a dominoes board that was intended as a Christmas gift for her dad.

''It's not a beautiful masterpiece but it's something I made,'' she said. ''It's like when you cook dinner for yourself it always tastes better.''

Her mother, Peggy, offers regular shout-outs to her daughter on Twitter from across San Francisco Bay in Danville. Father Carlos was an NCAA champion in water polo for California and won Pan American Games gold for Puerto Rico.

Steffens was recently a semifinalist for the AAU Sullivan Award, which honors the nation's outstanding amateur athlete. It also recognizes leadership, character and sportsmanship - and past winners include swimmers Michael Phelps and Missy Franklin and quarterback Peyton Manning.

Winning one gold medal won't do it for Steffens, who insists she will treasure the ''journey and process'' leading up to Rio as a separate experience from what she had last time going to London.

''My dream has always been to be an Olympian. My dream has always been to be a gold medalist and play at the biggest stage. I've done it before but it's still my dream,'' she said. ''Everything is changing so every experience is going to be completely new.''

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide—from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Andy Staples, Grant Wahl, and more—delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.