Jessica Steffens

The winning culture of USA women's water polo

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.

"It's our time"

LOS ANGELES -- In Sydney 12 years ago, the U.S. women's water polo team took silver when the Aussies scored to win gold with 1.3 seconds remaining. In Athens in 2004, the Americans took bronze.

Four years ago in Beijing, the U.S. women again took second, this time when the Dutch scored the winning goal with 26 seconds to go.

These are the facts that everyone associated with the U.S. women's water polo knows by heart. This is why, when the 13-player U.S. team was announced Thursday at a ceremony at the LA 84 Foundation, the legacy building from the Summer Games here 28 years ago, the rah-rah video closed with this tag-line: "It's our time."

Time will tell, of course, whether this U.S. team will do what the three that came before it could not, whether it can meet the challenge coach Adam Krikorian has long set, which he reiterated Thursday in public, to rise to "competitive greatness."

He said, "It's about bringing your best when your best is needed."

What sets this team apart is that it is, truly, a team.

Under Krikorian, who took over after Beijing from Guy Baker, the players have come together to form a remarkably close bond.

Their unity could have come apart after the U.S. team got drilled at the 2011 world championships in Shanghai, the Americans ultimately finishing sixth.

Instead, they rebounded. At the Pan American Games a couple months later in Guadalajara, Mexico, they not only won to claim their Olympic qualifying spot, they did so in astonishing fashion, rallying from three goals down at halftime to knock off Canada for the gold medal in a penalty shootout. The final score: 27-26.

"We learned at the world championships how not to deal with adversity," Krikorian said, adding a moment later, "Two months later, we showed how to deal with adversity."

Goalie Betsey Armstrong may be the best in the world. She deflects such praise, saying Thursday: "I know these girls have my back. I have their back. It's a genuine relationship."

Heather Petri was one of the shooters in that Guadalajara penalty drama. "No nerves," she said. "It was awesome."

Petri and Brenda Villa will now be four-time Olympians. They will have been on all four U.S. water polo teams since 2000; that's when the International Olympic Committee opened the Games to women.

Villa, 32, was introduced Thursday as captain of the 2012 team. She has done it all with the exception of that gold medal. Indeed, she was named the FINA magazine female water polo player of decade for the years 2000-10.

Petri, who turns 34 in a month, said the medal can't become a grail unto itself. "It's attainable," she said but cautioning, "You stop making it about that." It's the journey, the practices, the time together, she said, calling the time between Beijing and London -- despite a serious injury -- "the lightest of my four years" and saying, "I find joy in the smallest little things."

Two sisters made the team: Jessica and Maggie Steffens. Jessica played on the 2008 team. Maggie turns 19 in two weeks. Jessica graduated from Stanford in 2009. Maggie starts there after the London Games.

There were no surprises in the roster unveiled Thursday. This was the team Krikorian has been going with for several months now.

It's a defensive-minded team.

It's a deep team.

It's a team that -- despite the presence of Villa -- doesn't rely on one outsized star to carry the load. On any given day, anybody on the U.S. team can beat you. That makes this team hard to scout, and difficult to prepare for.

NBC is prepared to show a lot of this team -- even before the Games, including a July 8 nationally televised game against Hungary to be played at Corona (Calif.) del Mar High School.

"We understand that on any given day," Krikorian said, "we can lose."

Then again, he said, and you know what he has to be thinking, "We can win."

How a team becomes a family

Two summers ago, Lolo Silver was the leading scorer for the winning U.S. women's water polo team at the FINA World Cup, with 11 goals. A few months later, in February, 2011, she and her mom, Kathy Heddy-Drum, were having lunch. Mom, Lolo said, your left eye looks funny.

Thus began a journey that would envelop the entire U.S. water polo team. Truly, it would help transform the team into a family.

Kathy Heddy-Drum, who herself is an Olympian, a swimmer who finished fifth in the 400 meters at the 1976 Games in Montreal, turned out to have a tumor in her eye, behind her socket. The tumor proved malignant.

Doctors scheduled surgery for last March 25.

As it turned out, Jessica Steffens happened to be living at Kathy's house.

Jessica, who was on the U.S. silver medal-winning 2008 Olympic team, had gone to Stanford with Lolo. They had played water polo together there. They were now on the 2012 U.S. national team together.

When Jessica first moved down to Southern California in early 2011 to train for the 2012 team, she didn't have a bed or, really, much stuff to call her own. So she had moved in with Kathy, in Long Beach.

"It was so nice having her here," Kathy said. "She was so nice to talk to. We cooked together, and we laughed, and her father," Carlos, who is well-known in water polo circles, "is really funny."

For her part, Jessica said she was so grateful just to be able to help Kathy in any little way she could. She cooked. She cleaned. Whatever.

"Right before she was going into surgery, we went out with the team to breakfast and we invited Kathy and Lolo," Jessica said. "For both of them, that was really special.

"That was good for us, too, to feel we were part of it and we were there for them."

During the surgery, doctors removed Kathy's eye. Three weeks later, they called with bad news. We are so sorry, they said, but the cancer isn't all gone. You have to undergo 40 radiation treatments.

By the end of the course of the radiation, Kathy was, as she put it, "pretty sick." She had to check into a hospital for a week, right around the 4th of July.

The parents of some of the women on the team, Jessica said, took time to visit Kathy in the hospital.

Lolo, meanwhile, was juggling practice, hospital, practice. Or trying to. She didn't make the U.S. team that went to the 2011 world championships in Shanghai.

"Obviously, I was pretty upset I didn't make the world championships team," Lolo said. "At that point, it kind of showed me that there are bigger things in life."

Understand that Lolo had always been, as one of her oldest and best friends, Jessica Hardy,  who went to high school with her at Long Beach Wilson, put it, "really tough … independent tough."

Jessica Hardy is one of America's top-ranked sprint swimmers. She said, "Kathy is one of the nicest persons to have ever walked the face of the earth. To have this happen to her -- everyone was heartbroken."

Now, Jessica Hardy said, Lolo was "100 percent putting her mom before anybody else -- and that's hard the year before the Olympics when you're doing everything you can to focus on that.

" … I was really proud of her. Everyone was proud of her."

The U.S. team struggled to sixth place in Shanghai. Lolo took the time to go up to Stanford, to train with her coaches there. Next on the schedule: the Pan Am Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, in October.

Lolo was the team's alternate; she attended the team's training camp in Colorado Springs, Colo., but did not travel to Mexico. The U.S. won Pan Am gold, Jessica's younger sister, Maggie, scoring the winning goal in a wild 27-26 penalty shootout over Canada in the championship game.

That victory qualified the Americans for London. Canada was knocked out of the Olympics Friday, losing at a last-chance meet in Trieste, Italy.

Last month, Lolo was on the roster for a tournament in Russia called the Kirishi Cup. She scored three goals against Spain, albeit in a 12-10 loss.

There's no question Lolo can score. As she well knows, she has to play defense, the hallmark of U.S. coach Adam Krikorian's winning way.

"I pride myself in defense. I like playing defense. I don't think people understand that," Lolo said. "It's not that I am so focused on offense that the defense gets overlooked. I understand it really well; I realize what I need to do to play really good defense."

That understanding underscores another layer of Lolo and Kathy -- indeed, the team's -- journey.

For this past year and a half, these 17 women have willingly, readily become a family.

All the while knowing that only 13 will go to London.

The team will be formally named in about a month, on May 17, at a ceremony at the LA 84 Foundation, the legacy building of the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

It is widely believed that Lolo is one of those on the bubble.

The other 16 have done everything and more for Lolo and Kathy, Lolo saying amid tears of release and joy, "I couldn't imagine going through it without them."

One of the others, Kami Craig, said, "Being part of a team, it's always being compared to being part of a family.

"… When we're not at the pool, you can find most of us hanging out with each other. You're doing a year and a half of full-time. That's family. There's not a lot of things you can hide from each other, whether you want to or not. That's the beauty of it. And the discomfort of it.

"When Lolo's mom got sick, it was natural for us to gather around her and make sure she had all the support she needed to handle the situation."

Kami also said, "If anything like that would happen to myself, I would expect the same. It's a no-brainer.

"… It's letting your guard down. It's knowing you can rely on your teammates, not just in the water but out of the water. It's not fake. It's real."

At the same time, the full-on competition to make the team is intensely real, too.

"Of course I want to be there more than anything," Lolo said.

She added, "It's weird. We are a team. It's weird to think about that, that at the end of the day some of us won't make it. We're all so close now."

Listening to those remarks, Krikorian said, "We are almost there," adding, referring to the players, "They have almost taken this thing completely," which of course has been the goal all along, because a team that takes ownership develops communication, trust, respect and, ultimately, confidence.

He said, "We have a few more months to go. I am very thankful for those months because they will get us where we want this team to be. It's not my team. It's our team."

If Lolo does make the 2012 Olympic team, her mom will absolutely be able to see her play in London with her good eye. "It has been a long road," Kathy said.

Kathy is back to running again. She is back in the water, too, at the Seal Beach Swim Club, teaching second- through seventh-graders twice a week, on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.

If you saw Kathy, you wouldn't know anything was amiss. She has an artificial eye; the artists spent considerable time matching the coloring so that the shades of blue look just so.

During the surgery, doctors had to cut an optic nerve; Kathy said the left side of her face is numb. Even so, she said she considers herself fortunate. She has her water polo family. There's a lot of goodness to be thankful for. And, she said, "Luckily, my smile is there."

Maggie Steffens: time to shine

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.

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 in the making for a team and a sport that has everything going for it to be a potential 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.

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."

A band of sisters on the road to making history

It's not that Lolo Silver wasn't already a world-class athlete and in what the rest of us mere mortals would consider great shape. Among her many accomplishments, she was the leading scorer for the winning U.S. women's water polo team last summer at the FINA World Cup, with 11 goals. Then again, the American women's head coach, Adam Krikorian, had promised the U.S. women that over the course of this winter, water polo's off-season, they would -- at his direction -- come to know what it was like to get in amazingly, ridiculously phenomenal shape.

Water polo demands ferocious mental will.  That mental edge is rooted in physical toughness. It's at once that simple and that complex.

The U.S. women's water polo team has won virtually everything it could win over the past decade -- with one exception, Olympic gold.

At the close of the 2010 season, the U.S. women were the No. 1 team in the world. To be atop the podium at the close of the 2012 London Olympics, however -- that is the manifest goal, and that's why Krikorian undertook at the start of 2011 a studied journey to take this team where it has never gone before.

It is, indeed, a journey. It can't be anything but. It's essentially a new team, a younger team and -- let there be no doubt -- Krikorian's team.

Which means it's of necessity going to be a long and winding journey. And a compelling study in both coach and team dynamic.

In sports, there can be no guarantee of anything. Beyond which, water polo is just too hard. If anyone in the American camp needs a vivid reminder of how hard, there is always Sydney and 2000 for a reminder -- one goal shy, just one very late goal, from gold.

That said: Krikorian, who came to the U.S. team from UCLA, is quietly but assuredly confident in himself and his means. The players have seemingly bought into his program.  Already, there is about this U.S. women's team a buzz, a feeling, a hard-to-describe sense that they are a band of sisters on the road to making history.

Perhaps the rest of the world doesn't know it yet.

But they do.

"Definitely," Lolo Silver said at practice this past Friday at their home base, a military base -- for real -- at Los Alamitos, Calif.

"We have all been pushed past anything -- pushed mentally and physically past anything we thought possible. Even the girls who have been to previous Olympics haven't had this sort of training this far away from the Olympics.  It has us focused and it has us getting together and it has forming friendships that are going to last forever."

At the outset, Krikorian made plain that despite the team's many past successes every spot on the roster was up for grabs.

No one was guaranteed a spot -- not even Brenda Villa, arguably the team's marquee player over the past three Olympic Games. She, like everyone else, would have to earn her way onto the 2012 Olympic team.

"Brenda has done a good job. She has gotten herself in probably the best fitness level she has been in, in a very long time," Krikorian said as he monitored the team, split into squads of three doing catch-and-shoot drills in the Los Alamitos pool.

"She has put herself in a pretty good position at this point. But," he emphasized, "there's no out here that's guaranteed a spot."

Of course, Villa was not among the women in the pool that day. She was nine time zones away, in Italy, playing for her club team, Orizzonte -- though Krikorian and the other Americans had just come back from playing against her, in an exhibition in Italy, but also with her, in another exhibition, against a team in Holland.

For extra fun this week in Los Alamitos, several of the women had started wearing 7 1/2-pound weight belts during their morning practices. Understand -- that is, in the pool. They were swimming or treading water or doing those shooting drills wearing those belts.

"Those are our new little gifts," Lolo said.  "To help us improve our leg strength."

Over the course of the winter, practice started at 7 and ran until 10, running again from 1:30 in the afternoon until 4:30, with a variation in the schedule on Wednesdays, to break things up.

There was time for both basic conditioning and for strength training.

Over the course of the winter, in a 200-yard swim test, Silver shaved 40 seconds off her average time.

At that level -- that is a huge drop.

She was hardly, however, alone.

Elsie Windes, who scored five goals during the 2010 FINA World Cup, is also 40 seconds faster now.

She said, "I did things I thought I couldn't -- things you thought you couldn't do but you did, and with your teammates."

Tanya Gandy, a standout at UCLA and who joined the U.S. national team in 2009, who scored five goals at the 2010 FINA World League Super Final, cut a full minute off her time.

"I still think the clock was lying," Tanya said. "It was good to see -- I didn't think I could get that fast. and I can get faster. It's very motivating to know how far you can come and how you can be pushed. Every day you can be pushed. It's testing you. It's testing your mental state."

"Maybe," Lolo Silver said with a shy smile, referring to Adam Krikorian, "there's a method to the madness."