Maggie Steffens: There is tough. And then there is water polo tough

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By Maggie Steffens

Editor’s Note: Last month, USA Water Polo launched “Water Polo Tough,” a campaign that showcases and celebrates the sport’s toughness. The U.S. women’s water polo team is widely regarded as one of the most dominant – and toughest – teams in the world, in any sport. The squad has won every major tournament it has entered in recent years, claiming two straight Olympic gold medals, three straight world titles, three straight World Cup titles, and six straight World League titles. American captain Maggie Steffens has been a member of all of those winning teams, and is expected to help the U.S. in its bid for a third straight Olympic gold at next summer’s Tokyo Games.

I’ll never forget the moment I learned how tough water polo was… I was 8. Because there wasn’t a division for my age group, I was playing with kids who were much older than me. My little 8-year-old self was swimming in a water polo cap, which basically covered my entire head. A 17-year-old boy grabbed my foot, pulled me backward and propelled himself forward, leaving me in his wake as he went on to score a goal. It was easy for him. It was just a typical water polo move. And me? I felt like I had gone through a chlorine washing machine. But after coming up for air, I had to keep going. In water polo, it never stops! I got kicked, I got tossed around, I got beat. But I kept going. This is when I realized that water polo is not like the sports I grew up playing. This game is different. This sport is tough.

It is hard to understand the meaning behind the statement, “There is tough. And then there is water polo tough.” It is not necessarily referring to the “physical toughness” that inherently comes to mind when people think of sports; water polo encompasses much more.

There is a certain mentality one must have to conquer whatever this game may throw at you: over water, under water, internal, external, in your head, and in your heart. The commitment, resilience, perseverance, mental toughness, teamwork, strength, endurance, and intelligence required for this game are all just a byproduct of training for and playing water polo.

This realization has played a big part in my respect for the game. Success does not come easily in water polo, you must train to prepare for it. Training is where real toughness is built. This game pushes you past your limits, so you must be willing to push yourself every day.

On the U.S. national team, we practice nearly 7 hours a day, most of that time spent in water. We lift, we condition, we battle, we study film, we do team building, and we play. You are swimming, wrestling, passing, shooting, talking, strategizing, and somehow trying to stay cool, calm, and collected — all while people are trying to bring you down underwater.

There are similarities between water polo and other sports; like basketball, everyone plays defense and everyone plays offense. There is a center, center guard, point guard, and outside shooters, and constant ball movement. Like hockey, you must constantly be physical, all while quickly maneuvering the game. Like soccer, the only way to score is to beat the goalie. Like chess, you are trying to solve a moving puzzle, all while outsmarting your opponent. But in water polo, you are doing all of this in the water, without touching the bottom of the pool, for 32 minutes straight. It is an all-encompassing game mentally, physically, and emotionally. Those who can respect that and handle these challenges best will have the most success.

Above all else, if you want to be a water polo player, you must be water polo tough.

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