Feature | Water polo

Water polo GOAT Maggie Steffens on the sibling rivalry that helped her to success, role models, and her group of "badass" women

In an exclusive Olympic Channel interview, Steffens reveals the secret behind the USA women's Olympic domination, who her unexpected role model is, and why technology is changing the way she plays.

By Andrew Binner ·

There was never any doubt that Maggie Steffens was going to be a water polo player.

The double Olympic gold medallist’s father Carlos was one of Puerto Rico’s finest ever players, representing his country at three editions of the Pan American Games before joining Berkeley, University of California, and achieving a three-time All-American honours.

“He’s very passionate. I would almost consider him my first ever coach and somebody I still look to when I need help in our sport,” Steffens told Olympic Channel through a video link.

It was at Cal that Carlos met Maggie’s mother Peggy Shnugg, who also hailed from a sporting dynasty.

“My mom is one of 13, and most of them went to Cal and did aquatics and water polo. In a sense, it was in my blood to do some sort of aquatics, and especially water polo.

“I have about 40 cousins and we're so competitive. One of them won junior Wimbledon for tennis. We have others who went to Cal and played water polo at a super elite level.”

Steffens grew up as the youngest of four water polo-playing siblings, but her early memories of the sport were anything but easy.

As an 8-year-old, a lack of junior teams meant she had to play with Under-18s. Despite the California native’s obvious disadvantage, foundations were already being laid for the skills that would mark the rest of her career.

“I wouldn't say I was playing, I would say I was more just there. I was awful," she admitted to Olympic Channel.

“At an early age I realised how important it is to be challenged and how OK it is to fail at things and just keep improving. I was surrounded by people who were better than me, stronger than me, smarter. I knew it would make me a better player.”

Maggie Steffens draws inspiration from her teammates

Sister act

Playing against older players eventually started paying off for Steffens, who at 16 years old, was asked to play in her first Team USA match.

The call-up held an even deeper significance for the young star, as she would be there alongside older sister Jessica, who was already established in the team.

At six years Maggie’s senior, Jessica was part of the USA team that won silver at the Beijing 2008 Olympics. A young Maggie watched on from the stands that day in China.

“After watching in 2008, a switch went in my head and I said I'm going to also make this happen. I knew that I wanted to be by her side. I knew that us together would just be the most powerful thing."

“My oldest sister is the ultimate leader, and my ultimate role model. I've pretty much followed her exact path, just done it in my own style” - Maggie Steffens to Olympic Channel

Jessica Steffens was her sister Maggie's 'super power' at the London 2012 Olympics

Gold medals, records, and super powers

While it provided comfort to be playing by her older sister’s side, the ultra-competitive Steffens sisters would happily 'get into it' at practice.

“It would get so heated," Maggie continued. “Of course we supported each other. But it was like you can almost go harder against your sibling because they still love you."

“I remember in the first year we would get so competitive during practice, we’d drive home in silence and eat dinner separately! It’s pretty funny because we were also each other's biggest fans.” - Maggie Steffens

Despite the Steffens family’s top sporting pedigree, their finest moment to date surely came at the London 2012 Olympics, where Maggie lined up alongside her older sister to help Team USA win the gold medal.

Not only that, but Steffens junior scored 21 total goals en route to victory, setting a new record for the most goals in women’s water polo at an Olympic Games. Unsurprisingly, the sharpshooter was named Female Water Polo Player of the Year in 2012.

"For sure playing with Jessica at London 2012 is my most magical memory.

“I always tell her she was like my super power at that event because she almost took all the pressure off me and allowed me to just be myself and just play the game.”

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A new water polo dynasty

That Olympic gold medal signalled the beginning of a new dynasty in women’s water polo that continues to this day.

Under the captaincy of Steffens junior, the United States won three consecutive world titles as well as the 2018 World Cup.

At the Rio 2016 Olympics, Steffens' tournament-leading 17 goals helped the USA sink their rivals, and retain the title.

But with a constantly changing squad during this dominant period, what was their secret to success?

“It's no secret sauce. It's no magic recipe. It truly is the people, the team and the way we work.

“On the women's side and water polo, you have probably eight or nine teams that are really close."

USA win a second gold in Women's Water Polo

Team USA win a second consecutive gold in women's water polo in Rio 2016.

“We don't just come to work and cross off a box and say we did practice. We have purpose. Our work ethic is higher than anyone I know.

“We have a badass group of women who don’t give up, challenge themselves every day, and put the team first at all times.

“It's one of my favourite quotes... my Dad says ‘the biggest room in your house is room for improvement’.” - Maggie Steffens

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Personal motivation

But what of Steffens' individual motivation to keep performing at the top level?

With two Olympic gold medals, numerous goal-scoring records, World Player of the Year awards, and a couple of very successful stints playing in the uncompromising leagues of Hungary and Spain, what is it that makes her keep turning up to train at 5am in the morning and suffering the rigours of what is regarded by many as one of the toughest sports in the word?

“You can see how important family is to me. That's one of my main values, and that's the reason I keep pushing myself. That's the reason I keep going. My teammates are my family, and I want to make sure I help them in any way I can in the water. They are the people that give me the fire.

“I also want to represent my Steffens name to the best of my ability. That's so important."

“The moment you think you are at your best, you're probably done with that sport"

Despite being considered one of the greatest female water polo players of all time, Steffens is quick to deflect the praise.

Instead, she’d rather revert to the same mentality that has seen her reach such illustrious heights individually, and as part of the United States team.

“I’m about self-improvement. I can show you the list I’ve been making in [coronavirus] quarantine of all the things I need to improve on.

“I have my journal right here and it says I need to work on this type of shot. I want to get faster. I need to work on my drive defence. I need to get better at sending this type of centre in this type of movement. I need to get better at being able to finish inside. The list is endless, and it drives me. It's exciting.

“The moment you think you are at your best, you're probably done with that sport.

“I also love playing for the USA, and these factors combined make the perfect circle of motivation for me.”

Water polo's mental games

Water polo is often seen as a very macho sport, where physicality and strength are the key components of a successful player. But Steffens debunks that notion with the same accuracy and efficiency she shows in front of goal.

“This sport takes the fitness of soccer and basketball, and puts them together with the balance and mental focus of gymnastics.

“I think water polo is three games. It's the game over water that people can see, it's a game underwater that people can't see, and it's the game being played in each individual's head.

“You're dealing with all of these altercations with different people, but you still have to be calm over water. You still have to be able to read the game and solve the problem while communicating with teammates. You're always trying to be one, two, three, four, five steps ahead. And so if you're able to do all of that, you're going to be able to manipulate the game and have success.”

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Steffens undoubtedly takes her mental training seriously.

During California’s COVID-19 lock down, she has started using virtual reality equipment in order to stay sharp out of the water.

“I’m using these goggles to do neuro training at the moment. How cool is that?

"I'm not able to swim and do things I normally can, but I can train my mind and I can develop other aspects of my game that are so important.

“You put the goggles on and you enter this virtual reality where you can do cognitive tests, so it tests your reaction and the speed of your decision making. There are lots of games and I’m really enjoying it."

Technology aficionado and entrepreneur

Another reason the goggles may resonate so well with Steffens' personality, is that she’s something of a technology aficionado.

Somehow, when she’s not in the pool or training, the 26-year-old has found the time to complete a bachelor’s degree in Science, Technology, and Society, as well as a Master’s in management, science and engineering from Stanford University.

She also led the team to NCAA championship glory in 2014, 2015, and 2017.

“I really enjoy problem solving, which is essentially how I see water polo.

“I wouldn't say that I'm the person you're calling to fix your computer or something like that, but I really enjoy the innovative side of technology.”

Steffens was able to combine all of her passions and skills when she co-founded 6-8 Sports with five-time water polo Olympian Tony Azevedo.

Their software observes an athlete or team in action, and presents the collected data in a format that can be used to analyse and improve performance afterwards.

“It was cool to take my passion for my sport and use it at Stanford to discover my path academically.

“For me as a team member, I really love how people work together and human interaction. How can we use innovation in human interaction? And that's actually pretty much how our business was born. How can we use data and innovate the sport world in the water?”

Female role model / goals

Throughout her Olympic Channel interview, Steffens constantly referred back to the support and guidance she has benefited from during her career, be that from her father, sister, teammates or coaches.

But when asked for the individual that has made the most impact on her recently, the answer comes from an impressive source.

“At Stanford I have been lucky enough to interact with people from all kinds of fields.

“I always would look at what Condoleezza Rice was doing. I think she's an amazing woman. I think she represents herself so well. She went to the Stanford gym in the morning at 5:00 a.m. to get her workout in before going to solve world's problems. She always had the time and humility to say hello to the people around her and give them her time.

“Knowing what she's done for women and especially African-American women, just opening up so many doors, it's so incredible."

“I want to help kids recognise strong, intelligent, driven women like my water polo teammates as role models, and try to follow in their footsteps."

“I want to increase opportunities for women to compete in water polo, as it’s for everyone right? You can be tall, short, long, larger, stronger, skinnier… the water is almost an equaliser. It's really important for all kids to have self-confidence in their body image." - Maggie Steffens to Olympic Channel

The future

As soon as the lock down finishes, Steffens' focus will return to her main business: completing her hat-trick of water polo titles at the Tokyo Olympics.

"I have a lot of future goals in this sport. We want to be the best team we can be, and of course we want to be able to bring home a gold medal for our country. This is how we can continue to grow the sport."

At just 26-years-old, it's almost frightening to think that she could easily play for another two Olympic cycles. It doesn't look like this dynasty is going anywhere, any time soon.