|Maggie (left) and Jessica Steffens on the pool deck after the 11-7 U.S. defeat of Canada last week of Canada in the FINA World League Prelims contest in Irvine, Calif. Photo by Alan Abrahamson.
Under the lights last week in Irvine, Calif., in the second period of a FINA World League Prelims game against Canada, the score tied at 3, the Americans on offense, Team USA attacker Maggie Steffens was lurking about seven meters from the goal. In basketball terms, she was on the left side, at the top of the key. The ball swung her way.
Again, think basketball. When Kobe Bryant gets the ball like that, what happens? It's catch-and-shoot.
It's a no-fear, no-mercy style of play that's rooted in confidence and mental toughness. It's what special players do because -- they can.
Maggie Steffens caught the ball and did not hesitate. She swung and fired and, that quick, just like Kobe would, she scored, putting the United States up, 4-3, en route to an eventual 11-7 victory.
Maggie Steffens is 18 years old.
|Left to right -- Charlie, Peggy, Jessica, Carlos, Teresa, Maggie Steffens at the 2008 Beijing Games. Photo courtesy Peggy Steffens.
Water polo can be a capricious game. But Maggie Steffens is fast earning a reputation for reliability under the most extreme pressure. Last summer, at the Pan American Games, the Americans and Canadians staged an epic contest that went through two standard overtimes and then to 20 penalty shots before, finally, there was resolution. On the line: not only the gold medal but an Olympic qualifying spot.
The Americans prevailed, 27-26. Who nailed the winning shot? Maggie Steffens.
Assuming she makes the U.S. team that goes to the Olympics, and all signs are she will, Maggie could well be a star for a team and a sport that has everything going for it to be a breakout hit.
Expect the U.S. women's water polo team to be featured prominently in NBC's coverage of the London Games.
Over the past several Olympics, the U.S. women's team has done everything but win gold -- silver in Sydney in 2000, bronze in Athens in 2004, silver again in Beijing in 2008.
The U.S. women's team is made up of a collection of personalities that is fit, tan, well-educated, well-spoken and not averse to publicity -- in October, 2010, for instance, most of this bunch posed in the all-together for ESPN The Magazine.
And while Maggie Steffens may herself be on the verge of breaking out, she also figures to be part of one of the great personal stories of the Games -- layered with family, with Olympic history and with powerful notes of redemption.
Maggie's oldest sister, Jessica, 24, a standout on the 2008 U.S. team, apparently recovered from a 2010 shoulder injury, is in strong contention to make the 2012 U.S. team, too.
The Steffens house has roots in water polo that run deep and strong.
The girls' father, Carlos, played for the Puerto Rican and U.S. teams in the early 1980s.
Their mom, Peggy, comes from a family of 13; she is the 11th. The family name is Schnugg. Peter Schnugg is a member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic team that would have gone to Moscow.
Carlos and Peggy met in college at Berkeley. They have four children: Jessica, Charlie, Teresa and Maggie.
|On a family trip years ago to the Virgin Islands: Jessica, Maggie, Charlie, Teresa Steffens. Photo courtesy Peggy Steffens.
Growing up in the Steffens house, sports was an essential part of the rhythm of life. As was school. As was family -- their own home and their extended family. There are something like 45 cousins.
For Carlos, sports was the way up and out of a house in Puerto Rico where he had almost nothing.
Peggy said, recalling her own childhood, "My mom out of sheer duress would drop us off at the pool and we would stay there all day long." And, in a family of 13, "There was always competition. It was great."
Even so, Peggy said, referring to their four children, "Most of their mental toughness comes from him," meaning Carlos, adding, "Every day he has a story or an analogy. It has been ingrained in them since they were little."
In turn, Carlos was quick to praise Peggy, saying she's the one who did the carpooling, the sandwich-making, all of that, when he was traveling on business. "I spent quality time with them," he said, "teaching the passion and the love for the sport."
Both Jessica and Maggie said their parents emphasized not only sports but school and doing the best you could at each. Charlie played water polo at Cal and graduated last December; Teresa went there to play but then opted to focus on school and is now a junior majoring in media studies; Jessica is a 2009 Stanford grad; Maggie is headed to Stanford this fall.
"If any of us were feeling sorry for ourselves, our parents were quick to nip it in the bud," Jessica said, adding a moment later, "It's like putting change in your pocket -- that's what we grew up valuing. That has continued through with us.
"At this level you need that mentality. We put in so much work, so much time, so much effort just to survive in the game. It's a tough sport but at the end of the day I think we love the grind, we love the competition, we love the toughness of it all."
Jessica, as a player, is indeed more of a grinder. Maggie, by contrast, is more of a, hey, everybody, look-at-me -- the sort of natural talent people have been noticing since she was kicking soccer balls as a 5-year-old.
Her father said of his youngest daughter, referring now to water polo, "She has feeling for the game. She understands the game. And she loves it. When you see her play, she anticipates. That is the key to everything -- in life, right?"
"I have seen Maggie play since she was 12," said Adam Krikorian, the U.S. women's head coach, who used to be the coach at UCLA. "I knew she was special at 12. It was no surprise.
"… I knew from before, from watching her, before ever coaching her, that she was incredibly talented, she was coachable and she was tough as nails. That was why I wanted her from the get-go."
"Maggie is good," Carlos said, and always has been, dominating 13-year-olds in the pool when she was 8.
"But," he said, "she has yet to do what Jessica did at the 2008 Olympics. I don't know if you noticed but they made an all-world team," the Olympic media all-star team, "and the only one that made that team from the U.S. is Jessica. This is a girl who [barely] made the [U.S.] team. Maggie still needs to show that."
He also said Jessica has been a "great sister," adding, "She has really helped Maggie a ton going through the journey. Maggie has always looked up to Jessica."
Jessica said, "I'm trying to take it day by day. Ultimately, it's one thing playing with your teammates who become your sisters. It's another to have your sister be your teammate. I know she and I can go through hell together and we'll come out okay.
"I feel that way with the other girls but it's completely natural with us. There are things we see and do in the pool together that are so cool. It's a really fun thing to be a part of."
For her part, Maggie said, "It's a very surreal thought, to be able to not only have one person but two people on one team sharing that same experience. It's pretty amazing -- a crazy experience."
"We are working so hard," Jessica said. "We are taking it step by step."
As is Carlos. And here is a little secret.
Carlos was good enough, probably, to have made the 1984 U.S. team. But, with his degree from Berkeley in hand, he had to make a living. He had to support his mother back in Puerto Rico and then his wife and then a growing family.
When the Olympic Games would come on television, it hurt to watch. For a long time it hurt.
"In water polo, there's nothing bigger than becoming an Olympian," he said. "I made sure, and I still do, that I offer my kids the best possible opportunity that what happened to me will not happen to them. I will support them as much as they can to make sure they don't have that empty feeling."
That feeling lasted until 2008, when Jessica played in Beijing. The whole family went to watch. "Man," Carlos Steffens said he remember thinking in the stands, "how lucky I am to live this through my kids."
Something else happened in those stands. After the U.S. team lost in the gold-medal game, defeated 9-8 by the Netherlands, Carlos gave his attention to Maggie, who was sitting next to him. She had just turned 15.
"I looked at her and she at me and I said, 'Now it's your turn to get the gold.' She was all business. She nodded her head.
"And now here we are, four years later."