Intertwined History: U.S. and Puerto Rico Face Off in Pan Am Water Polo Competition

Caterina Banchelli of Italy during the women match between team United States of America (white caps) and team Italy (blue caps) at 20th World Aquatics Championships at the Marine Messe Hall B in Fukuoka (Japan), July 24th, 2023.

Intertwined History: U.S. and Puerto Rico Face Off in Pan Am Water Polo Competition

The colors of their flags are the same, one of many overlaps between the United States and Puerto Rican water polo programs. With the opening this week of polo competition at the 2023 Pan American Games in Santiago, Chile, the American men’s and women’s sides will face both Puerto Rican sides on Tuesday in a doubleheader.

Opening Day Action

There’s a rich history between two nations separated by 1,000 miles of ocean but tethered by a contentious political tie. For more than a century, Puerto Rico has been an unincorporated territory of the US. Puerto Ricans are American citizens but have zero representation in the U.S. Congress.

Puerto Rican Water Polo Team

Courtesy: Total Water Polo

When it comes to water polo, the two nations share a connection through the island’s leading polo families. The Mujicas of San Juan have been involved with Puerto Rican polo for half a century; three generations have either supported or represented their nation in international play. Currently, Jean Pierre “JP” Mujica is the head of the island’s national team program; his son Fabio is on the Puerto Rican men’s roster for these games. JP and his four brothers went to the U.S. for an education—and collegiate polo competition.

“It’s always a thrill to play with the US, there are friends that we play [against] and also on the coaching staff,” Mujica said in response to the challenge of facing the Americans. “The US is a favorite not just to win our game, they are favorites for gold, so we are playing the best team.”

Maggie Steffens, the face of American women’s polo, has strong ties to the island through her father, Carlos, who represented Puerto Rico in three Pan American games (1979, 1983, 1987).

“My dad represented Puerto Rico at the Pan American games, and now I get the chance to represent Puerto Rico in my own way, on Team USA.” she said in an email. “Being Puerto Rican and representing my family is something I’m very proud of.”

As goes the relationship between the U.S., a country of 330 million people, and the island of Puerto Rico, with a population 1/100 of its northern neighbor, so goes these matches between unequal rivals. In 25 years of women’s play at the Games, America has never lost to Puerto Rico. On the men’s side, it’s been more than three decades (1991) since the USA lost in international competition to their island opponent—and never in Pan Am play.

Alan Bayo, Puerto Rico’s top scorer, is a 14-year national team veteran. Milena Guzman is a star for the Puerto Rican women; she recently signed with Club Natació Cataluyna to play in the Spanish professional league.

The American men feature Ben Hallock, considered one of the world’s best young players. An NCAA champion for Stanford in 2019, he’s also an integral part of Europe’s top pro team. His Pro Recco squad has won back-to-back-to-back LEN championships from 2021-23.

Steffens sets the pace—an historic one—for the American women. A two-time NCAA champion at Stanford (2014, 2017) and three-time Olympic champ (2012, 2016, 2020), Steffens seeks an unprecedented fourth-straight gold medal next year in Paris.

Hopes are relatively high for a strong Puerto Rican showing in Santiago. Their men’s side is coming off a best-ever showing last summer at the Central American and Caribbean Games, beating Cuba for gold. Puerto Rico’s previous highest CAC finish was second place (1998, 2002).

There was no women’s competition in San Salvador, but after finishing fifth at the 2019 Pan Ams the PR women look to finish in the upper half of the eight teams in Santiago.

Success won’t come against America; the US men have won the past seven Pan Am titles and 12 of the last 14. The U.S. women have swept the last five golds. Both are prohibitive favorites in Santiago to again advance to the Olympics, the prize for any team champions in Chile.

Even though she wears the red, white and blue of the USA, Steffens feels the pull of her father’s homeland whenever the two countries face off.

“It’s an energy I fully embrace, especially while here en los juegos pan americanos,” the American captain said. “Getting the chance to play Puerto Rico is always a fun opportunity, especially now that I’m getting married in San Juan in two weeks.

“Who knows… maybe I’ll wear the PUR cap one day!” Steffens added.

When done with Pan Am play and her honeymoon, perhaps one of the first calls Steffens fields is from Mujica. He and many others, including Puerto Rican Swimming Federation President Fernando Delgado have been rebuilding the island’s aquatic programs since Hurricane Maria devastated the their country six years ago.

“[Maggie] has been helping us with promotions and clinics on the island.’ Mujica said. “I cannot say what she would do, but I think she will love to play in Puerto Rico and help develop our program after she retires from the US.”

No matter Tuesday’s scores—and it’s certain to be in favor of the Americans—the bonds of kinship that exist between polo on the island and the mainland are sure to be strengthened, a welcome development for the sport in Puerto Rico.

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JC Garay
JC Garay
5 months ago

In 1986 Puerto Rico also won silver in the CAC

Jose Ramirez
Jose Ramirez
5 months ago

I read your 10/30/2023 article; Intertwined History: U.S. and Puerto Rico Face Off in Pan Am Water Polo Competition.

I want to clarify that in 1986 CAC celebrated in Santiago de Los Caballeros, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico finish in second place before Cuba. This is the first Silver medal for Puerto Rico mens water polo team

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