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Maggie Steffens is the captain of the U.S. women’s water polo team, and a two-time gold medalist in 2012 and ’16. In London, she set a women’s Olympic record for most goals (21) and was named MVP of the tournament.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sports Illustrated: Where were you when you first heard the news that the Olympics were being delayed?
Maggie Steffens: I was at home, because we had already been in quarantine at that time. I was in, what I thought when it first happened, was just gonna be a two-week quarantine. I remember even writing that in my journal. Like, alright, here’s my fitness plan for two weeks while I’m at home. … I didn’t have access to a pool, so I had come up with a full schedule, thinking that in two weeks, maybe we’d be back at the pool training. And I think it was maybe a week after that first two-week quarantine, the IOC came out and said that the Olympics were gonna be postponed.
SI: And how did you take the news initially?
MS: I remember feeling pretty numb at first. … But at the same time, you know, I was also trying to be logical and understood that the Olympics might be postponed. And so it was almost like when I heard about it, I knew the news was coming. And at first, I was kind of monotone about it, trying to accept it. And then it wasn’t until later that night that I really let the emotions hit, and I remember kind of having a wave of emotions come over me. Sadness, confusion, anger. And once I was able to accept those, I think it allowed me to kind of move forward through, I honestly called it like a grieving process.
But I think about how fortunate I am that it was just the Olympics. It wasn’t a life, it wasn’t my family member, it wasn’t anything that extreme. And so I think it helped with perspective, and realizing, O.K., now that I’ve been able to go through this grieving period and realize the 2020 Olympic Games are lost and now it’s the 2021 Games, how can we make the most of this opportunity? I was like, “Alright! This is the new opportunity. We’ve hit some adversity, now let’s be adaptable and make the most of it.”
SI: One of our writers, Pat Forde, wrote a story in June 2020 about swimmers who didn’t have access to pools and the great lengths that they went to find water. Did you do anything particularly unusual?
MS: Yeah, definitely. I didn’t have a pool for the longest time. And I definitely was asking around in search. I live in Long Beach [California] and we have access to the [Alamitos] Bay. And at first, because of quarantine, no one was allowed to go in the ocean or the bay. And then finally once that opened, I bought a wet suit online. And I would go out and swim in the freezing bay, and it was amazing. I think I need to harness that feeling of being so excited to get in the water. Because when you do it every single day and it’s really hard training for seven hours, you’re not super stoked to get to the pool every day. And so I would bike or walk to the bay, get my wet suit on and swim along the bayside, and that was my workout. So that was really, really cool and different.
And then luckily my business partner and five-time Olympian Tony Azevedo, he had a backyard pool that, I mean, might be the size of two hot tubs. And we got those bands that you can attach to a pole. And I would run over to his house [2.5 miles] because I needed to get cardio in, or bike over to his house. And without seeing him or interacting, he’d open the gate and let me use his backyard pool, and I’d swim in place. He ended up buying a floatie water polo cage. And thinking back now, I’m like, woah, it was pretty cool to think about the creative things you ended up doing to stay in shape and stay fit and stay focused on our goal.
SI: Before you were able to swim in the bay … that’s gotta be the longest you’ve gone without swimming in how long?
MS: That was by far the longest I’ve ever gone without being in a body of water.
SI: Since you were how old?
MS: Since I was probably 2 years old. I’ve been swimming, or in the ocean, or in something since I was 2. Especially having older siblings. Even when I’ve been able to take breaks, after the Olympics or after a college season, they’re no longer than three weeks at most. At most. And even during my quote unquote breaks, I say quote unquote because I probably never go longer than a week without hitting the pool. Because anyone who’s a swimmer or plays an aquatic sport knows that once you lose it, it is real hard to get back. It was probably a couple months or a few months without any sort of swimming or getting in a body of water.
SI: Jumping ahead to the Olympics, how different do you think it’ll be competing without fans?
MS: It’ll definitely be very different for the Olympics. I think something that gives our team a bit of confidence is the sport of water polo—as much as I am striving to make it different—I wouldn’t say is necessarily the most popular sport out there. So it’s not like we’re playing every game in front of thousands of fans. A lot of times we play in front of no one. We know how to compete without fans. That being said, I do love, love, love having the energy and pride that comes with playing in front of people you love and people that you’re grateful for at the Olympics, and being able to share that experience with them. So that has always been kind of a little superpower to me, to our teammates, to have people there to cheer us on, and you really feel that energy from them. So we will definitely miss them, and it made me sad when the news came out; I’m not gonna pretend it didn’t.
SI: I was actually going to ask how much you can even hear anyway, with the caps on over your heads?
MS: You can definitely hear the cheers, and you gotta love a good “U-S-A” chant. Our ear guards, you can hear straight through them—it’s not too tough to hear. But being in the water makes it harder to hear with the echoes.
SI: So on the specific competition side, you’ve been the team’s leading goal scorer in the past. This time around, do you anticipate having the same role and being a focal point of the offense again?
MS: I think, to be honest, before each Olympics that was never my role heading in. So I don’t really plan that to be my role in this Olympics either. My role has always been to be what the team needs me to be in that moment. On the defensive side, offensive side, in the transition game, as a leader, communicating. So for me, my role might be something different at the Games, because that’s what that tournament calls for. I think that the really unique thing about our team is that we are very deep. We have an incredible roster and on any given day, in any given tournament, we have all the different types of players, and the depth for people to step up. And depending on what our team needs me to do, I’ll be ready to step up into that role, or even step down into a role. And that’s I think what makes this team really special.
SI: Along those lines, does the team feed you because you’re a goal scorer? Or does it just move the ball around and find someone who’s open?
MS: I think what our team focuses on is not who’s scoring the goals, it’s about how can we get the greatest opportunity to score. I think our team really focuses on ball movement and sharing the ball. So there’s a lot of selflessness there and a lot of teamwork, which makes it really fun to play. Because like I said, on any given day, it doesn’t matter for us who’s scoring the goals. All that matters is that Team USA is scoring those goals we need. For sure if we see somebody getting a hot hand, there’s no shame in keeping them hot. But I think that’s what’s really fun to watch about our team. Is that you can’t say, Hey watch this one player. Every single player should be someone you’re watching out for.
SI: I’m guessing you’re aware though that you’re second on the all-time career Olympic goal scoring list. Does that cross your mind at all? Would you be excited to break that record?
MS: I had no idea about that, to be honest, until another interview. So that probably shows you where my mind is. But yeah, I mean, my goal at the Olympics is to be the best I can be for my teammates. And hopefully help our team achieve our goal, which is being at the top of that podium. And if a byproduct of that is somehow getting to the top of that list, awesome. If it’s not, cool. You know? That’s not why I go to the Olympics. So it doesn’t really cross my mind, but yeah I guess it would be a cool byproduct for sure.
SI: Are there specific opponents that you game plan for when you prepare? Or does the team mostly just focus on your own team regardless of who’s on the other side?
MS: Oh, we game plan for everyone. I mean every single country on the women’s side is a very strong competitor, so we scout each team, lots of video, we talk about the teams, we train to be able to play against them. So we know our opponents very well. And we know that they’re gonna bring a different game to the Olympics, so we have to be ready to adapt and adjust.
SI: And who are just a couple of those teams that you view as your biggest threats to winning a gold medal?
MS: Oh my gosh, all of them. I’m not just saying that. It is much different than I think a lot of other sports, and even the men’s side of water polo. I think that’s what makes the women’s side really fun to watch—every single game will be close, because every single country kinda has their own style and has been able to medal in different tournaments. It’s not the same top three every time. So for us, every country we play against is a top rival.
SI: That’s a very thoughtful answer, but can you give me one country? Who are you most worried about?
MS: It’s true! I really can’t give you one country.
There’s only 10 teams at the Olympics. So to even get there is really tough. You have Spain, Australia, Hungary, Russia, [the Netherlands], Canada, China, like, the list really goes on. You end up playing Japan in Japan? You always gotta get ready to play the host country, you know? It’s tough.
SI: Alright, I’ll give you a pass if you don’t want to give me one team. That’s O.K.
MS: I’ll tell you, we’ve played so many different teams in big games. I feel like maybe in 2012 that would have been easier to answer, because we usually met the same two teams in a lot of finals. But in the past five years, it’s been actually really interesting.
SI: And that probably speaks to the growth of the sport, I would think.
MS: Yeah, exactly.
SI: I know people who play water polo talk about how physical it is, and I’ve seen that USA Water Polo uses the hashtag #WaterPoloTough. Is that a point of pride for you?
MS: Definitely. I really do believe that in order to play this sport you have to be extremely tough. But not just physically, I think mentally and emotionally. Because you are playing so many different games, while playing one game. You’re playing the game that the audience and the fans see, which is above water. And with the ball, the ball movement. Then you’re playing a second game, the underwater game, which is even tougher. You’re wrestling underwater. Your legs are doing all of the work. Your core is trying to stay balanced as you’re getting kicked. Your suit is getting grabbed underwater and you have to still somehow score a goal.
SI: A few rapid-fire questions, to dish on some teammates. Who’s an under-the-radar player you think is going to shine this time around?
MS: Gosh, this is really hard because everyone’s amazing. She’s not really under-the-radar, because she’s already a gold medalist, so I guess this isn’t really fair. But I really feel like Aria Fischer is just gonna light up the world.
SI: Which teammate would you choose to be stuck in quarantine with?
MS: Oh! Probably Maddie Musselman, because she can bake me all these yummy treats. And she has a cute little doggie. So she could bring her dog with her and I could kinda have a dog for quarantine.
SI: Which teammate would you not want to be stuck in quarantine with?
MS: Ooohh. Probably Ashleigh Johnson, because she would always distract me from working out. We always tend to just get super off-track, because we’re total goofballs together. So I feel like we would distract each other, and all of a sudden you’d find us having a lot of unfinished tasks. Like we’d get so excited, we’d be like, “Let’s be painters today!” and never finish the painting. And then, “Let’s build a house!” and never finish it. And then “Let’s learn a dance!” and never finish learning it.
SI: Last question: What do you want people to know about you, besides how good you are at water polo?
MS: I guess maybe two things. One is just how awesome my family is. I have been really fortunate to have three older siblings who led the way and have been my biggest supporters. My oldest [Jessica] actually was an Olympian in ’08 and I was her fangirl. And then we got to play together in 2012 when we won USA’s first gold. So I think, just a reminder, for every athlete out there, there’s a family behind them that has really pushed them. And then second, I would just add that I am an entrepreneur. I have a company I cofounded with Tony Azevedo called 6-8 Sports and it’s a performance analytics company. So I’m really into the entrepreneurial world and being a businesswoman, as well as training for the Olympics. And so being able to have that passion as well has been a huge reward for me.
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