Maggie Steffens: Mental Health ‘Huge Part’ of Journey Back to Water Polo Gold

Aug 7, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; United States driver Margaret Steffens (6) and centre forward Aria Fischer (9) celebrates after beating Spain in the women's waterpolo gold medal match during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tatsumi Water Polo Centre. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
Maggie Steffens, left, and Aria Fischer celebrate after the final whistle of the U.S.'s gold-medal game win over Spain; Photo Courtesy: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Maggie Steffens: Mental Health ‘Huge Part’ of Journey Back to Water Polo Gold

The expectations entering the Tokyo Olympics were heavy for the United States women’s water polo team. Being the clear No. 1 team in the world for most of the last decade and the two-time reigning gold medalist brought stress and strain to the players, on top of the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic’s delay of the Games.

But for Maggie Steffens, one of the leaders of the U.S. squad, one of the big reasons that the U.S. re-ascended the podium in Tokyo was its ability to recognize and cope with the mental challenges.

“Mental health is a huge part of this journey,” Steffens said after the U.S. clinched gold with a rout of Spain. “The Olympics have a lot of pressure, a lot of weight, and I think a lot of people when they think of health just think of what you can see. They think of the physical health, or needing to see a doctor for an injury, but what people don’t see is what’s going on inside your brain, what’s going on inside your heart, and this is a really tough journey.

Jul 28, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; USA player Margaret Steffens (6) takes a shot against Hungary in a group B match during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tatsumi Water Polo Centre. Mandatory Credit: James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

Team USA’s Maggie Steffens lines up a shot during a group match against Hungary; Photo Courtesy: James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

“If you ask any team, you have to go through a lot to get to this point and be able to realize your dream. I think there’s been a great amount of athletes who have demonstrated how to put your health first and use the resources that you have.”

The U.S squad is exemplary for its talent in the water. Steffens was the most outstanding player at the London Olympics in 2012 and Rio Games in 2016, before teammate Maddie Musselman took home that honor from Tokyo. They are backed by arguably the best goalie in the world in Ashleigh Johnson.

In Tokyo, they set Olympic records for the largest margin of victory in a gold-medal game (nine goals) and the most goals scored in one Olympics (109). They have won the most Olympic matches (27) and scored the most goals (366) since the women’s game was added to the Olympic docket in 2000.

At this Olympics, the U.S. lost for the first time since the 2008 gold-medal game, dropping a group-stage match with Hungary. It was just the fourth loss in 138 games since the end of the 2016 Olympics, a record of excellence that breeds intense pressure.

But the team is equipped to help each other shoulder that load, via its focus on the mental side of the game.

“There are sport psychologists we have as a team, and what’s so great about being a team sport is that you can rely on your teammates and use them as support, but at the end of the day you do need to put your health first,” Steffens said. “I’m grateful for a lot of the women who have demonstrated that and been a great leader in showing that it’s not just about what people can see. There’s always more to the picture than what meets the eye.”

That focus on the mental aspect of the games is what had the U.S. playing its best at the right time. Steffens was hampered by a broken nose in the group stage, but she came out firing in the knockout rounds. The U.S. was plus-38 in four group games, then plus-24 in three knockout games that were rarely competitive.

“They’re unwavering in their approach,” coach Adam Kirkorian said. “Obviously, when you’ve had success before it gives you some confidence going into a game like this. We’ve talked a lot about the fine line between confidence and complacency. But we’ve done a fantastic job of just staying focused through this process and it’s amazing.”

“I think with the pandemic, the postponement, so many challenges, so much adversity, individually and as a group, we kept coming out of those stronger and always stronger together,” Maggie Steffens said. “Today, I think that was just a show of who we are as a team. That no matter the adversity that is thrown our way, we stick together as a team, and we rise up and we thrive in those moments. It was really amazing to see the balance and the full team effort.

“You could see it from every single player on our team. It’s about the unit that you build, the unit you create and that’s really where the magic lies. I’m really grateful to be a part of it and to have been able to show the world that magic we’ve created as a circle and as a unit.”

Aug 7, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; USA players celebrate with their gold medals after the women's water polo gold medal match against Spain during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tatsumi Water Polo Centre. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Team USA with their gold medals after winning the final of the women’s water polo tournament at the Tokyo Olympic Games; Photo Courtesy: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports