Jeff Pearlman

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Maggie Steffens

#324
The recipe for an American water polo icon and two-time gold medalist? DNA, passion, doggedness, patriotism, plenty of sleep ... and a big ol' pint of Ben & Jerry’s. POSTED September 1, 2017

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So a few weeks ago an issue of SI for Kids arrived in the mail, and my daughter Casey squealed audibly when the magazine included a trading card of someone named Maggie Steffens.

“I follow her on Instagram!” she said. “She’s amazing!”

That was enough for me. I reached out to Maggie via Twitter, fired off a quick DM—and here we are, taking water polo and nutrition and hearing the national anthem play on foreign soil. But here’s the cool part: When I told Maggie that my daughter was about to begin tryouts for her high school team, she volunteered to reach out and offer a kind word. A day later, Casey texted me from school.

Her: “Did you have Maggie Steffens text me?”

Me: “I did.”

Her: Whoa.

It was a life highlight. It also spoke to the goodness of a young woman who believes in her sport, and also believes water polo participants need to stick together.

In today’s Quaz, Maggie and I talk post-Olympic letdown, tubs o’ ice cream, Tom Petty and sisterhood. One can follow her on Twitter here, Facebook here and Instagram here.

Maggie Steffens, two golds are impressive. But the 324th Quaz? Legendary.

JEFF PEARLMAN: So Maggie—I open with this. You won gold in the 2012 Olympics. You won gold again in the 2016 Olympics. And I wonder, after you win gold, and you receive the medal, and after you return home … what does that feel like? Does the glow remain? Does it vanish? Do you ever have moments of, “Is this as good as it gets?” or is it a perpetual, “Yes! We did it! Yes!”

MAGGIE STEFFENS: Honestly, it only gets better once you get home, at least for a short while.

We are not Olympians and/or Olympic champions because we woke up one day, all on our own, and did it. It takes an entire team and years of preparation—physically, mentally and emotionally. Many members of our own personal ‘teams’ are those from our home towns, our schools, our colleges, our friends and our family. I even think back to my first soccer coach and how much he believed in me—just at age 9! I think about my high school teachers who supported me and were so understanding when I had to split my time between school and full-time training for 2012. I think about my friends who I grew up with, the ones who challenged me and the ones who smiled with me. I think about my water polo coach, Maureen O’Toole, and holding her Olympic silver medal… dreaming one day maybe I could have one of my own. I think about striving to be amongst the best and grateful for the Stanford dream.

But mainly, I think about my family: my older siblings and my parents. Wow. When I got to let my family hold the gold medal, they had won that medal too. It gives me the chills to think about. My family, even my crazy Schnugg cousins (yes, Gramma Schnugg had 13 kids and each of those kids had lots of kids, so I have about 40 cousins who all are stellar athletes and live in the Bay Area), shaped me into the girl I was then and then woman I am now.

So because of that, the glow remains. Sharing the gold with the people who may not be wearing a zipper suit and water polo cap by your side, but the people who have been there with you from the start. They deserve a piece of the gold as well because none of us could do it without them. So in that way, that happiness and pride never fades.

But the excitement definitely does. A few weeks after the Olympics, it’s on to the next thing and life goes on. It’s pretty weird how one month after all your dreams coming true and being the happiest you’ve ever been, you may be in a dorm room studying for your first college midterm and just trying to figure out the partial differential equation … um, what?!

In all seriousness, I did struggle a bit after my first Olympics. I knew London wasn’t “as good as it gets,” but I was a little lost for sure. It took me some time, but I always came back to my dad’s words—“Strive to be amongst the best” and “Always remember your last name.” With these in mind, I knew there was still so much more. I focused on the values of what the “Steffens” name means to me and thought about my goal of always striving to be amongst the best. I was fortunate to have that at Stanford and with Team USA. My dream was still to be an Olympian and an Olympic champion—I had just done it once before. The dream remains today, it just follows a different path and a different journey, which makes each new quad so special.

There are so many paths in life, which helps keep me motivated and excited for the life to come. I don’t just want to be an Olympic champion, I want to take my Stanford degree somewhere, I want to possibly have my own business one day, I want to make a difference in the world, I want to have fun. My family always makes fun of me for always wanting to do everything, but helps keep me dreaming.

Anyway, now that I have ranted for 20 minutes, I’m not even sure if I answered the question … but I will tell you that sometimes, out of nowhere, I will just smile because I know our team accomplished our dream together. That is what it is all about. Sharing this with your team—the team you play with and the team behind the scenes. I have that moment of “Yes! We did it!” all the time. I smile and then I continue to get back to the life at hand.

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J.P.: So we moved to SoCal three years ago, and my daughter immediately gravitated toward water polo—a sports we barely knew back in New York. So I wonder—why did we barely know it back in New York? What I mean is—the game is fast, exciting, thrilling, athletic, dynamic. Yet it seems like, across America, it’s pretty limited in knowledge and appeal. Am I wrong? Am I right? And is there a reason?

M.S.: I’m so happy she gravitated toward water polo. It is the best, so I hope she loves it. But Jeff, I ask myself this question every day. I still don’t get it. How is water polo not a sport every kid is doing and loving? Water polo is truly a mix of so many sports, which allows for great opportunity. Just like basketball, there is a center and a center defender, there are outside shooters and people who drive to the hoop, there is counter attack and counter defense, there is ball movement/passing lanes/picks/anticipation … just add another player, a goalie, and a net!

Just like soccer, there is an offsides component, corner kicks, angles lanes and penalty shots. Just like hockey, there are man-ups and man-downs, quick play and movement. And it’s really physical—just under the water :).

So, add the endurance and sprint swimming component as well as the mental and physical toughness it takes to play the game, and there you have it! It even used to be called “water rugby,” so I’m sure that can help paint a better picture. But to me, if the game were more simple to understand from a regular audience perspective, the sport would be more popular. That’s why exposure to the sport at a young age would be super beneficial in its overall growth. I think this is why it is more popular on the west coast. There are outdoor pools everywhere, a little bit warmer, and people are pretty comfortable with the beach.

In the Bay Area, I was very fortunate to have Maureen O’Toole and Jim Purcell start Diablo Water Polo Club and have the exposure to the game at a young age. Anyone who plays other sports and can swim will love water polo. I guarantee it. So at a young age when people are trying out soccer, basketball, swimming, etc… water polo ties them all together.

Something I would love to help with is exposure and opportunity. Take basketball and soccer. If you walk around a city or even a suburb, at almost every other block there is a public basketball court or grassy field. All you need is the ball and you can play around. It becomes a pastime that reminds you of your childhood when sport was simply fun. With water polo, you can’t just hop in a random pool by yourself and somehow find a water polo cage and float it by yourself (too expensive, too much liability, no cages or balls, and not enough pool space/time!). I was lucky because I had a backyard pool and three older siblings and a water polo cage to play around with… “3, 2, 1… she shoots … she scores! aaaaahh”

We were able to play almost every day just like some kids can walk across their street to play basketball, soccer or football. If every kid had this opportunity, I think the sport could really grow. I went to Croatia this summer and there were water polo cages at every beach! People just jump in and play. I would love to channel that opportunity here in the states … the water is just a little bit colder.

I also just want to add that water polo is a great sport for kids simply because any body type can play. It’s almost like the water is an equalizer. You can be short, you can be tall, you can be built, you can be skinny, you can be lanky, you can be bigger, you can be smaller.

J.P.: Your dad Carlos was a fantastic water polo player—three Pan Am Games, three-time All-American at Cal, 1979 Pac-10 Player of the Year. And, as a sportswriter, I’ve found that people with such backgrounds can go one of two ways as parents. They either 1. Push, push, push their kids; or they 2. Sorta hang back, let the love develop organically, or not at all. What was your dad like in this regard?

M.S.: My dad is the most passionate person I know and water polo is one of his biggest passions. So his love for the sport exudes out of his every being. When he watches our games, he is up in the corner of the stands, wearing a colorful shirt and his white Panama hat. He pretends he’s playing.

It’s a mental game and he loves putting himself back in those competitive situations, but he keeps it to himself—he simply wants to enjoy. Which is his biggest passion—enjoying life and enjoying it with his family. For this reason, he definitely let us discover the sport and find the love for it on our own. He would “push” us by having water polo balls around the house as kids and playing keep away with us in the backyard pool. We learned to love this yellow ball and what it represented (a fun game with family). We even would throw around coconuts in the Caribbean, pretending to play water polo in the waves! He always “pushed” us to give everything—our first, second, third, fourth effort, and to “represent our last name” in all that we do. In this, we learned so many values of sport and competition, which have been so valuable to me not just as an athlete, but as a person. He definitely has been my best coach, though, with tricks of the trade and little talks after games. I learned so much and am still learning. Not to mention, he also made us very mentally tough, which you need to be a water polo player.

J.P.: You recently signed to play for UVSE, the best team in the Hungarian professional league. I’m curious how that came to be. I’m also curious how you feel about that. Are you like, “Yes, Hungary!” Are you like, “Um, Hungary?”

I wasn’t completely sure I wanted to play abroad next year because I am finishing up my Master’s at Stanford as well as trying out some business ventures. The opportunity to be a guest player for a team presented itself and allowed me to fulfill my other passions and pursue my professional career abroad. To be honest, I NEVER thought I would play in Hungary and at first didn’t even consider them as an option. I always imagined I would be in some tropical place where I can salsa dance and play in the ocean… Hungary is not quite that. What sold me on Hungary was the opportunity there as well as the energy of Budapest. I feed off passion and energy – and it was flowing through me while we were in Hungary for 5 weeks this summer. It truly is a beautiful country, with so much history and incredible people (and good food… a necessity for me!). What I loved most about it though and what really opened my eyes to this opportunity was the love for water polo. Budapest was like the heart beat of water polo, the mecca to the sport I love. I wanted the opportunity to play in a place like that, where my sport is loved and celebrated. Not only that, legends were born here and the current players (men & women) can teach me a lot – I’m excited to simply ask them questions and learn/play with them.

I am inspired by the culture of the country and the culture of the sport in Hungary and am eager to be a part of it. I feel like I can really develop there as a person and as a player WHILE being in a place where people know, love, and respect water polo… HOW COOL IS THAT?! There is nothing like that in America for water polo and even many places around Europe. I look forward to playing in other countries later on in my career, but why not go to the mecca of our sport – learn, grow, develop – and LOVE It all at the same time?!

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J.P.: I recently had a long discussion with my 10-year-old son about athlete psyche-up music. Namely, does it actually do anything? I’m being very micro here—do you think there’s a direct relationship between pre-game music and performance? Or can we play Jay-Z or Barbra Streisand and it makes no difference? And do you have a psych-up tune?

M.S.: I think music does a lot. But, everyone is very different. This is why I think “psyche-up” music is more of a mental thing. It allows you to get in the mindset you believe you perform at best in that given moment. Everyone has their different vibe they are trying to channel before battle. For example, I like to play focused and intense, but loose and fun. I like to play as if I’m back in my backyard pool playing keep away with my dad and siblings or in the 12-under Junior Olympic Championship with my club team—but with the knowledge, experience, and toughness I’ve built up through training/games over the years. So I tend to listen to happy songs and lots of Spanish/Latin music—I mean the rhythm cannot be beat! And it reminds me of family.

This may be a little superstitious, but I also tend to listen to music with lyrics that represent the way I want to play. In 2012, alongside my many Spanish/Latin songs, one of my main pump-up songs was Maroon 5’s “Lucky Strike” (hoping I would have some lucky goals) and in 2016, two of my main songs were Andy Grammer’s “Good to be Alive” (to remind myself how amazing it is I get to play this game at the Olympics) and Macklemore’s “Can’t Hold Us” simply because of these lyrics: This is the moment. Tonight is the night, we’ll fight til it’s over… like the ceiling can’t hold us. So, I am totally weird! But I like to listen to music and then not have my headphones in so I can be with the team, dancing (lots of dancing) and laughing and connecting so we are mentally and physically ready to accomplish our goal.

J.P.: In 2011 you skipped your high school graduation to join Team USA at the World Championships. That strikes me as a pretty hard decision to make. Was it? And how was the decision made?

M.S.: It wasn’t a tough decision, but it was a tough journey. I actually only went to about half of my last semester of my high school senior year. Full-time training in Southern California started in January, 2011, which was at the beginning of my last semester. I was fortunate enough, and still am, to have Adam Krikorian as my coach and someone who believed in me early on. He had mentioned full-time training to me before my senior year had started and I knew I wanted that opportunity. I had been dreaming of being an Olympian since I was young enough to start sport. But I also had the dream of going to Stanford and balancing my athletics with academics. So at the beginning of my senior year, I printed out a calendar for each of my teachers and one for myself. I sat down with them each individually and told them my dreams and aspirations and asked them how we could make it work. We ended up coming up with a schedule where I would come to school for a couple weeks then fly to SoCal to train for a week … then fly to school for a week then fly back to SoCal to train for two weeks.

I was very lucky to have teachers who also believed in me and allowed me to try to accomplish both of these dreams. I still remember taking an AP calculus test and crying in the middle of it, because I had no idea what was going on and was so stressed from all the travel/etc. That had never happened before and I was simply overwhelmed. This would happen during training, too. We were doing a swim set and I got lapped! I kept my head down and swam as hard as I could, but my body just couldn’t keep up. My eyes were teary during the swim, but I didn’t want to show that to anyone. I didn’t want to let anyone down.

After these moments, I wrote that swim set, that test, and different quotes on a bunch of sticky notes and put them all over my bathroom mirror. They were a reminder of how I didn’t want to feel and how important preparation was and who I wanted to be moving forward. Missing graduation, the social events and all the leadership activities was tough, but they were simple sacrifices in order to be the best I could be for Team USA. The hardest part was trying to be my best self for Team USA, for Stanford, for my friends and for my family while traveling back and forth at 16- and 17-years old. My friends made a fun video for me for my birthday which I received in Russia right before our USA team held a graduation ceremony for me in China (hotel robes, a Diploma signed by my coaches, & some local Chinese Pizza Hut). This was so special for me because it didn’t matter where I was in the world, I was surround by family and was very fortunate to have such great people to inspire me.

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J.P.: The other day I was talking with a colleague at ESPN who covered Michael Phelps for many years. And he was sort of bemoaning the way we often turn athletes into symbols of patriotism come Olympics; how we’ll paint a Michael Phelps or a Maggie Steffens as the “all-American story” when, first and foremost, you guys are top-level athletes there to compete. So I wonder—when you’re in the Olympics, do you feel more American (for lack of better phrasing) then usual? Do you feel like representing the U.S. makes it extra important? Does patriotism come into play?

M.S.: I wouldn’t say I feel more American at the Olympics. It is more that your American pride is heightened. I remember my first time representing Team USA. It was in Khanty-Mansisk, Siberia for junior worlds. We heard our national anthem before the first game and I had immediate chills. I was only maybe 15-years old and representing the Junior team, but we were still representing the United States. There was this pride that overtook my body and a respect I knew I had to play with. Once I caught this feeling, I knew this was what I wanted to do.

Preparing for the Olympics, you aren’t just thinking of yourself, but also your teammates. You are thinking about how can I make sure their dreams are fulfilled. You are thinking of your family and friends and how much they have helped all of us get here. And you are thinking of your country. You are thinking how you have the most special name on my cap, the name of the United States of America, and it is your job to represent it the best you can because that is what that name deserves. Truly, it is an honor to wear the red, white and blue and a constant reminder of how fortunate we are to be women, playing the sport we love, on the biggest stage possible.

My favorite moment of the Olympics, well there are many. One that is always extra special is standing on the podium, alongside these incredible and badass women you love and respect, and watching the American flag rise up with our hands on our hearts. I only sing the anthem in this moment, and I sing it loud and proud. I literally just laughed and smiled to myself thinking of this moment—it is breathtaking. Every breath and every thought has been about this moment, and now we get to cherish it. Our every dream has officially come true. It is a representation of what our country is about and we always want to represent the competitive and dream-oriented values of our great country. In 2016, I got to send out a video to the Armed Forces Network and felt so lucky to say “thank you.” Because they are representing our country and making sure that we, as athletes, get to simply play and compete for our country and represent in a completely different way. If it weren’t for them or their predecessors, we wouldn’t be up on that podium. It was a surreal moment. I love being American every day. The Olympics just make us even more proud of the opportunities we are given.

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J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?

M.S.: The greatest moment of my career was standing on the podium and looking down at my oldest sister, Jessica Steffens. In 2008, Jess was playing for gold and our family was up in the stands. It felt like I played that game although I was just a young kid supporting my biggest inspiration. They came up short and won the silver, and I could feel the emotion and pain from the girls in the water. My dad looked at me and kind of gave me a look and said, “Now it’s your turn.” In that moment, I knew exactly what he meant. He believed that I would be in that water next time. Winning in 2012 was amazing and all the cliches you can think of apply, but winning alongside the women I had watched in 2008 and helping to change their destiny was the most incredible feeling one could ask for. I was playing for all those girls, but the main one was my own blood, Jess. Locking eyes and knowing that we just achieved our dreams together, as sisters, is truly the greatest moment of my life. She always was the one I looked up to and who I never wanted to let down, and now we were looking at each other knowing we had just fought to our last breath to make sure we would be standing in that moment together representing Steffens and Team USA. We got to look up and find our family in the stands and the looks on their faces were priceless. That moment of finding your family after the gold is truly the photographic moment everyone thinks about. In that moment is when you realize, wow, we did it.

My lowest moment was in 2013. I would say it was less of a moment and more of a way of life. I struggled in this year although I was extremely happy to have an Olympic gold medal and be a freshman at Stanford. A lot of great things happened and I was still very fortunate, but I wasn’t the “Maggie” I wanted to be. We lost in the 2013 NCAA Championship and ended up getting fifth at World Championships that summer. These losses definitely contribute to this being the lowest moment of my career, but it was more so the loss of the values that make me who I am. It wasn’t like I went and did something crazy or something awful like that, but my passion and my drive was not where it needed to be. I struggled with trying to keep the happy face that I always do, but missing a lot of the values that make me happy.

It really made me reflect on how I want to be and who I want to be. My dad always told us, “Remember your last name,” and I didn’t think I had done that that summer. I wanted to be my best self in all that I did, and I fell short. This year really helped me prepare for 2017 knowing that the year following the Olympics is definitely tough and I’m not shy to say it. You never know what life will throw at you!

J.P.: The wife and I were just looking over your Instagram feed—and you’re clearly in insanely good shape. So I wonder—what’s the key? How important is diet? Sleep? Fitness? Will you have an ice cream cone, drink a Coke? Will you ever skip a workout? Or is it all about regimentation?

M.S.: Oh, will I have an ice cream cone? I most likely will buy an entire Ben & Jerry’s pint for the week and eat it in one sitting. I love dessert, so you’ll definitely find me looking for the nearest Cold Stone wherever I live. But I do this because of my fitness and overall nutrition. I think that is what is most important, at least for me. I am aware of supplementing my body with what it needs in order to perform at the highest level and I am also very in-tune with my body. I listen to it.

Whether it’s a tart cherry shot or lots and lots of veggies, I want to make sure my body is ready to perform. With that, our sport requires you to be in great shape and it’s not easy. I truly believe you need to be in the best shape for water polo—although one’s shape is different for everyone. Not touching the water or a polo ball for a couple days makes you feel like you’ve never played the sport! It’s super important to keep your body ready to play the game at all times, which I believe you can do even with cross-training during down time. I also think sleep is extremely beneficial. Kaleigh Gilchrist was my teammate and roommate in 2016, and she used to make fun of me because I always wanted to be asleep early enough so I could get my eight hours in. It became a running joke, but you better know I made sure it happened. If I didn’t, I was already planning a nap. Sufficient rest and recovery simply becomes part of our routine during full-time and I believe is a major asset to fitness and training.

Lastly one of my favorite quotes is from the Marines—“The more you sweat in battle, the less you bleed in war.” I think of this in terms of training. If I can train/practice at the physical and mental level it takes to play in the highest pressured game, then I will be prepared physically and mentally.

J.P.: Can you still swim for fun? I mean, allllllll this time in the pool. If friends are going swimming, and they ask you to join, are you like, “Yes!” Or, “I’d rather eat rat poison”?

M.S.: Um, yes! Especially if it is in the ocean! Chlorine and water are simply part of my DNA at this point … not going to turn down an activity with friends. But I would suggest playing some water basketball instead.

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH MAGGIE STEFFENS:

• Five coolest places water polo has taken you?: Rio, New Zealand, Budapest, Barcelona and Siberia (Not because of the place, but because, well, who else can say they’ve been to Siberia twice?)

• Grossest thing you’ve ever seen in a pool?: Throw up floating on the surface.

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Tom Petty, Luke Walton, The Simpsons, UCLA, Amanda Longan, roller skating, Tom Hanks, “Orange is the New Black,” Dak Prescott, the number 18, Chipotle, Joe Biden, Barcelona, onion rings: Chipotle, Amanda Longan, Barcelona, Onion RingsTom Hanks, Luke Walton, Tom Petty, roller skating, Joe Biden, Dak Prescott, UCLA, The Simpsons, the number 18, “Orange is the New Black”

• One question you would ask Leon Spinks were he here right now?: Do you regret the rematch?

• Best advice you’ve ever received?: Both from my dad—“Always remember your last name” and “Strive to be amongst the best.”

• First thing you do when you wake up in the morning?: An aggressive and odd full body stretch/twitch while making a high-pitch dinosaur sound.

• Are farts more funny or embarrassing?: Funny.

• Best joke you know?: I have two: What do you call a Fish with no eyes? A FSHHHHHH! and What do you call a deer with no eyes? No Eye Deer (Saying these aloud are way more fun).

• Five reasons to make Danville, Cal. one’s next vacation destination?: 1. Great wildlife such as cows, wild turkeys, dee, and coyotes; 2. A bowling alley ready for any type of party; 3. Great hikes at every turn, where you will see lots of … dogs. 4. Fro-yo everywhere!; 5. The people! (OK, not all of those may be the best reasons, but they remind me of good ol’ Danville!)

• Most embarrassing moment of your life?: I’m not exactly sure of mine, but my nickname at my first swim club (from ages 2 to 5) was “Maggie Baggy Underpants.” Soooooo that’s something I hope I’m not called too often anymore.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life