LONDON — Before Maggie Steffens could help the U.S. women's water polo team to its greatest Olympic victory, she had to experience one of its most crushing defeats.
In the 2008 Beijing games, the Americans lost the gold-medal match to the Netherlands by one goal. Steffens was 15 and sitting next to her father, witnessing her older sister Jessica, a defender, look devastated after the defeat.
Carlos Steffens, her father and a former water polo player at Cal, turned to Steffens as the Americans cleared the pool, and conveyed a simple message to his young daughter:
"Now it's your turn. Let's get the gold."
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Four years later, Steffens, now 19, fulfilled the request: She scored five goals in the London Olympics women's water polo gold-medal match, leading the U.S. to an 8-5 victory over Spain and their first gold medal in the event — having earned a medal in each year since the event debuted in Sydney.
Steffens, who will attend Stanford, led all scorers in the tournament with 21 goals.
"Just like the greatest athletes in the world — Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan — she makes everyone else around her better," said coach Adam Krikorian.
It was Krikorian who encouraged Steffens to join the U.S. water polo national program as early as possible, to get her acclimated with a team that would push for gold in London.
"He saw something in her. Wanted to bring her to this team. And she totally rocked it," said Jessica Steffens, six years Maggie's elder.
Maggie Steffens was at a Canada Cup tournament in 2009 with the U.S. "B" team when she was called up to the senior "A" team, joining a roster with players she idolized.
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"They were all drinking coffee before the game. I thought, 'Maybe I should drink coffee too,'" she recalled. "I wanted to be just like them. Not necessarily to prove myself, but just be humbled being in their presence."
It was in the tournament that Krikorian and the team got a sense of Maggie Steffens' competitive fire.
The very first possession of her first game against Australia, she was punched in the nose and started bleeding in the pool. As she swam to the side, Krikorian approached her.
"I said, 'Are you OK?' And she said, 'I want to go back in.' And this is a 16-year-old, playing against some of the best players in the world," he said.Heather Petri and Brenda Villa, both of whom had competed on the only three previous U.S. women's water polo teams — collecting two silvers and a bronze, but never the gold.
That is, until London and The Maggie Steffens Show.
"I wanted this for myself, but I wanted this for Brenda and [Petri] to be able to retire and go out with the happiness of winning gold," said Steffens, "and for the '08 girls, to fill that void, and get the gold medal."
Chief among those '08 girls that now have gold: Her sister.
"It's awesome. I light up when I say that," Maggie Steffens said. "I was there with Jess. I saw how hard it was for her in '08. To be able to share this with my sister — who I haven't always shared everything with — is really special."
When did Jessica know her sister would grow up to be an Olympic heroine?
"When she was born. Have you seen her baby pictures?" she said, with a laugh. "She's the youngest of four. We're a very competitive family. From the get-go, she's been a baller."
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Jessica and Maggie Steffens shared a room in the London Olympic Village, covering it with photographs of their family in order to create a comfort zone.
Appropriately, it was family that prevailed in the gold-medal match: a championship for the familial bonds of teammates, young and old; a championship for two sisters, an Olympic rookie and a silver medalist; and a championship for two daughters and their father, who watched proudly from the stands.
"This is for him too," said Jessica Steffens.
"When I hugged him, I hadn't cried yet," said Maggie Steffens after the game.
"But when he hugged me, it was instant tears."
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