The winning culture of USA women's water polo

BUDAPEST — It’s the end of July, and you can feel those dog days of summer settling in. With it come the doldrums for a lot of Major League Baseball teams. By now, it’s clear their chances of winning the World Series are the same as Rutgers winning the 2017 Big Ten football championship. Like, zero.

Which has led to a slew of recent articles about one of the most controversial strategies in sports. It’s called “tanking.” Essentially, you tear up your team, understanding that in the short term you are going to be very bad. The trade-off: long-term greatness. You hope.

It worked for the Chicago Cubs. It seems to be working for the Houston Astros. Now the lab focus has turned to the Chicago White Sox.

Here Friday, the U.S. women’s water polo team defeated Spain, 13-6, to win the gold medal at the FINA world championships. The victory means the U.S. women are three-in-a-row winners on the biggest stages in international play — the 2017 worlds, 2016 Olympic Games, 2015 worlds. The obviously No. 1-ranked American women also now own all the major titles in water polo: the Olympics, world championships, FINA World Cup and FINA World League.

 Coach Adam Krikorian and Maggie Steffens in the pool moments after the U.S. women had beaten Spain // Getty Images

Coach Adam Krikorian and Maggie Steffens in the pool moments after the U.S. women had beaten Spain // Getty Images

This win also raises a fascinating insight into the creation and sustainability of team culture. This tanking strategy is perhaps gaining currency. Yet this U.S. women’s water polo team is a proven winner year after year amid precisely the kind of turnover that in another context might lead to comparisons of, well, tanking.

This is an MBA-style case in-the-making.

It’s a documentary that’s so obviously just awaiting Hollywood funding (hello, Oscars!).

This is a story that has it all. It’s how American (men and) women come together to win.

And find new ways to win. And keep finding new people, and new ways, all the while paying genuine tribute and respect to those who came before and made it even possible to dream of winning now.

 Steffens shooting against Spain // Getty Images

Steffens shooting against Spain // Getty Images

Of the 13 players on this 2017 team, six made their world championships debut, including two new goalies. (The figure is ever-so-slightly misleading because those six include one 2016 Olympian, Aria Fischer.)

So — how does this team do it? This program do it?

It’s way more than the lucky black-and-white striped Stanford shirt that goalie Gabby Stone’s dad, Guy, wore Friday to the game. OK, but lucky charms help. Always.

At any rate, part of this is really easy.

One, Title IX means American women have opportunity.

 Krikorian speaking with the U.S. team during the gold-medal game // Getty Images

Krikorian speaking with the U.S. team during the gold-medal game // Getty Images

Two, when it comes to women’s water polo, the NCAA system is better than anything in the world, tougher even than the European pro leagues.

Three, there’s the stuff that goes beyond, and this is where it gets really, really interesting.

It starts with — but it's by no means all about — head coach Adam Krikorian.

His philosophy is simple:

“We have just always wanted people that value competition, that value hard work, that value enthusiasm and that are passionate, people who want to be part of a family — a family that, sure, has its tough times but obviously has its good times and enjoys being around one another. As my brothers used to say when we were growing up, when I was trying to figure out what do with my life: ‘Do something you love with people you love doing it with, and you’ll be good at it.’ “

 Steffens before the game. Stanford announced this week she has received an NCAA post-graduate scholarship to help fund her master’s degree studies at the university in management science and engineering

Steffens before the game. Stanford announced this week she has received an NCAA post-graduate scholarship to help fund her master’s degree studies at the university in management science and engineering

The story goes way beyond that philosophy. The Summer Games were revived in 1896. The men’s tournament got going in 1900. The first women’s tournament — not until Sydney in 2000.

At that very first Olympic tourney, the U.S. women lost gold — to Australia — on a controversial shot with roughly one second left in the game.

Now Maggie Steffens is the captain of the U.S. team. At the time, she was 7 years old.

Since, she has watched countless replays of the game, and of the winning shot. One of the reasons: one of her early coaches, Maureen “Mo” O’Toole, was on that 2000 U.S. team.

“She wanted us to learn,” Steffens said Friday, relaxing before the championship game. “Not just the play itself. She would say, ‘Look at how many people were at this game. You should be proud to be a women’s water polo player. You should carry this pride.’ “

O’Toole, in a Friday phone call, said of Steffens, “She was a pretty amazing kid to coach. She was special. When she was 10, I said to my husband she would be the best player in the world someday.”

Brenda Villa was probably the greatest female water polo player of the first part of the 21st century. Certainly FINA thought so — the federation’s Aquatics World magazine named her player of the decade from 2000-09. Like O’Toole, she was on that American team in Sydney. And the U.S. team that won bronze in Athens in 2004. And silver again in Beijing in 2008.

Heather Petri, another great American player, played on all those teams with Villa, too.

Villa and Petri played on the London 2012 team — along with Jessica Steffens, Maggie’s older sister. And, by then, Maggie.

When Maggie joined the team, the older women could have made it tough on her.

But no.

This is how winning culture works.

“To this day,” Maggie Steffens said, “even in big tournaments, I will text my big sister, or Brenda, just to get advice from them, get a, ‘Hey, how are you?’

“These girls and Maureen O’Toole — she coached me and is a huge influence — and before her, they have helped create the culture we live in today. That’s my favorite part. We represent women who played in the ‘70s and ‘80s who never had the opportunity to play in the Olympic Games and the world stage but fought to make sure we did.”

Villa, now the mother of a 1-year-old daughter, said Friday on the phone, referring to Maggie Steffens, “This just shows you what a great leader she is. She puts in the work. She works hard. She loves it. We’re not even there. We still feel so connected because she does such a gret job with relationships.”

In London, the U.S. women — finally — won gold. Maggie Steffens was named tournament MVP.

Krikorian had taken over as coach after the Beijing Games.

Of course it has not been all roses along the way. This is a natural part, too, of forging culture.

There were times, Villa said of her relationship with Krikorian, when their relationship perhaps verged on “awful.”

“I think,” she said, “that we both got to a point where it was, we are not going anywhere — why are we fighting so much? At some point, my mom called me out and said, ‘Why are you doing this? What do you have to prove?’ It just made me think, ‘OK, like the coaching is not the same, let’s focus on me and my teammates, let’s finish this out.’ That helped me. Look, Adam and I, we want the same thing.”

Now, she said, “We both have come to respect each other. He does such a great job of putting teams together. He definitely has a special gift.”

In 2011, the U.S. women finished sixth at the FINA worlds in Shanghai. A couple months later, with a London 2012 spot on the line, came an epic 27-26 penalty shootout victory over Canada — Maggie Steffens converting the game-winner.

After winning London gold, the U.S. team finished fifth at the 2013 FINA worlds in Barcelona.

“More than finishing fifth,” Krikorian said Friday afternoon, “we weren’t committed and we were complacent. We learned. I think we are all pretty good learners.”

Krikorian’s older brother, Blake, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, passed away just days before the start of the Rio 2016 Games. Adam wrestled with what to do — ultimately, with his team’s support, flying home for the memorial, then back to Rio, where the Americans would win gold, Maggie Steffens leading the American team with 17 goals.

“He is a great coach for the U.S. team,” O’Toole said. “He has it all. He is hard but during games you can hear him — he is so calm. He has the girls so well prepared that he really doesn’t have to do anything in the game itself.

“Then you have somebody like Maggie Steffens on your team. Not only is she a great player, she is a team player.”

After Rio, Krikorian wrestled again with what to do — stay on as coach, or not.

“When I was first thinking about whether I wanted to come back and coach or not,” he said, “part of my thought process was, Rio was so painful — I wanted a positive feeling again. I didn’t want it to end this way.

“I very quickly realized it doesn’t matter what happens in the future. Nothing is going to ever take that pain away,” a reference to his brother.

“It’s just trying to make the most of this journey. My brother was — where I’m going to miss him the most is, he was seven years older than me. He was my captain, he was my leader, the person I went to for guidance, the person I idolized the most growing up. I didn’t realize the reason I do what I do, the reason I coach, is because of his impact on me, and I wanted to have that same impact on people. That allowed me to gain a deeper perspective. It has become more clear for me in this journey.”

He also said the months since Rio have offered “a sense of calm, a sense of confidence of who I am and what I believe in,” adding, “It has been hard, too. It has been extremely emotional. There is certainly not a day goes by that I don’t think about him and I don’t cry. A lot of people probably don’t see it but that pain — it will never go away.”


“I find myself appreciating the moments. It’s not easy. Because you think about the thousand other moments ahead of you in the next 10 minutes. That needs to be a part of the fabric of being a coach. You need to find the joy in this journey and those really neat moments.” Speaking next of the incomparable U.S. volleyball player and coach, he went on: “Karch Kiraly, who I have become friends with, he calls them the ‘goosebump moments’ — I think it has allowed me to enjoy this journey this summer with this group a little bit more, appreciate my family and my relatives.”

That is an incredible articulation of how to build and sustain culture.

There are of course the fundamentals — competitiveness, resiliency, hard work. “If you come in and don’t show you’re not willing to put in the work to be the best, you don't fit in,” said Melissa Seidemann, who like Maggie Steffens has been part of the national team since before London.

Maddie Musselman, who scored three goals against Spain Friday and would end up being named Budapest tourney MVP, said, referring to the six players making their 2017 worlds debut, "I’m really proud of how they did, whether they were in the water for two minutes or the whole game. It shows that this culture is very competitive and we want to win, no matter who we are up against." 

The key to that, Steffens said, is the way Krikorian empowers the players to take responsibility for who they are and what they’re doing.

That, truly, is how you win.

“Always wanting,” she said, “to improve not only individually, but as a team. Always wanting to develop, always wanting to be our best and bring our best and to be ourselves. And to have the freedom to want to truly better yourself as a person and better the people around you by who you truly are, by being genuine. That helps create the family that we are.”


“It’s hard, right?

“It takes a long time to build a team like the team that we had in 2016. It takes a lot of practices, obviously, water polo-wise. It also takes a lot of ups and down, whether those are created in practice games or in relationships — you learn how to love each other for who you are, in and out of the water, love each other, trust each other, and I think that’s the main culture that there is. There is that level of respect from coach to the newest player on the team.

“… Now we have a new team with new girls,” a reference to these 2017 FINA world champions, the foundation of a team now in the first year of four aiming for the Tokyo 2020 Games. “Now we get the opportunity to learn with and from one another, to learn about yourself even more, to try to create that new family.”