Olympian roundtable: What’s pro life like for women in softball, volleyball and water polo?

Rachel Garcia Softball (left), Jordan Larson volleyball (center), Maggie Steffens water polo (right)
Getty Images

The United States had unprecedented success in women’s team sports at the Tokyo Olympics. Athletes from Team USA won gold in basketball (both 3×3 and 5×5), volleyball, and water polo, plus silver in softball and bronze in soccer.

But back in the U.S., professional opportunities vary widely by sport. To get a sense of the current post-NCAA landscape in women’s softball, volleyball, and water polo, On Her Turf caught up with Olympic medalists Rachel Garcia (softball), Jordan Larson (volleyball), and Maggie Steffens (water polo). Garcia, Larson, and Steffens sat down for this zoom Q&A ahead of the Women’s Sports Foundation’s Annual Salute earlier this month.

This Q&A has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

On Her Turf: To start, can all three of you describe what life has looked like since the Tokyo Olympics?

Maggie Steffens: Once I got home, it was definitely nice to just breathe a little and try to relax. It had been a very long five years, training for [the Olympics] – through the pandemic, with a the postponement and extra year of training.

[I’ve also been] reconnecting with family members and trying to see as many young kids in the sport as possible. I think a huge part of being an Olympian is sharing your story and [helping] young athletes so that they can see themselves filling your shoes – or even bigger shoes – moving forward.

Rachel Garcia: Since coming back, I’ve actually been going through some rehab on my knee. [Apart from that], I’ve been doing some [softball] clinics in my hometown, just trying to give back.

Jordan Larson: I’ve been on a wedding tour. All of my teammates decided to get married, including myself. I decided to plan a wedding for 10 days after the Olympics – not sure if that was a good idea or a bad idea, but it was a great time. And then I proceeded to go to four of my teammates’ weddings. So we’ve been spreading the gold medal through the receptions and having a good time.

ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: Gender inequity report: NCAA spends far less on women’s championships

On Her Turf: Because of the one-year postponement, the 2024 Paris Olympics are now less than three years away. Maggie and Jordan, have you decided if you’re going to make a run for the next Olympics?

Maggie Steffens: To be quite frank, I’m still reflecting on the Tokyo Olympics and this Olympic journey – it was an extremely rewarding one, but also an exhausting one. The Olympics don’t come around very often so I’m trying to live in this moment.

I love water polo, I love the Olympic movement. I’m not gonna say exactly one way or the other right now, but I am definitely keeping the Paris door open.

Jordan Larson: I would say the exact same thing. I’m proud of what I’ve been able to do and what our team was able to do. I love being in that environment. I’m not technically closing the door, but my body is telling me a little bit of a [different story].

Maggie Steffens: One thing I’ll add… Rachel mentioned earlier that she’s going through rehab and we’re all listening to our bodies. When you play at this level, you’re just continually pushing your body past your limits, and you’re also pushing yourself mentally. So it’s kind of hard to think about three years from now when you’re working on also healing your mind from all of the work you put in.

ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: There is tough. And then there is water polo tough

On Her Turf: Thanks for sharing that. Rachel, given that softball sadly won’t be included in the 2024 Paris Olympics, how does that impact your own career planning?

Rachel Garcia: I mean, it’s devastating. For softball to be in the Tokyo Olympics, that was huge for the sport. For it to be out for the next [Olympics], I think is very unfortunate. I think it breaks a lot of girls’ hearts. For the [Los Angeles] 2028 Games, there’s a potential of it being added back and that’s what all of us are hoping for. But similar to what Maggie and Jordan said, I’m just listening to my body. The 2028 Games are so far away. By that time, I’m gonna be 30 years old. So I just have to keep doing everything I can just to stay in shape and keep my body healthy.

On Her Turf: While the spotlight on women’s volleyball, softball, and water polo shines brightest during the Olympics, you’re all obviously playing your sports – day in and day out – even when you aren’t getting the same level of attention. Can you give an overview of what the current post-college professional landscape looks like in each of your sports?

Jordan Larson: For volleyball, we actually probably spend more time overseas than we do in the United States. Usually we’re with the U.S. national team from May until October. And then October from May is when we’re overseas. So there’s really no time off. [There’s also a new volleyball] league – run by Athletes Unlimited – that is giving people more time to stay within the States, which is great.

Rachel Garcia: For softball, the majority of the pro leagues play during the summer. Athletes Unlimited also added a softball league – the second season was this past summer. [Some players] also play in Japan, [which adds a few more months] to the season.

Maggie Steffens: For water polo, it’s pretty similar to volleyball. The national team trains together in the summer for the FINA international season. We also train together full-time in the year before the Olympics. But in terms of professional water polo world, there [is no league] in the United States. So post-college, we also spend a lot of time overseas from September to May. The main league is in Europe, and it’s similar to soccer’s Champions League, and then Australia has a professional league as well.

On Her Turf: For Jordan and Maggie, given that you play for U.S. national teams that just won Olympic gold, is it strange to have to travel abroad to play your sport and continue your career?

Maggie Steffens: This is actually my first Olympics that I’m not going back to college, so it’s going to be an interesting transition. [In terms of playing abroad], I will say that it’s nice to have something to look forward to after the Olympics. That doesn’t get talked about a lot, but there are definitely mental struggles after you’ve achieved your lifelong Olympic dream.

[Looking ahead], it’s really interesting to be going to play with people I played against in the [Olympic] final. I played for teams in Spain and Hungary before the Olympics – and those were the two other teams that won medals [in Tokyo] – so it was kind of cool to be on the Olympic podium and be hugging my “enemies.”

And now I’m going back to play side-by-side with them. I think that just shows the bigger perspective that sport can bring to this world, especially for women: to be competitors and be supporters at the same time.

Jordan Larson: I think Maggie said it quite well. For me, the older I’ve gotten, the harder it’s been [to go abroad]. I think that’s why I’m starting to take shorter contracts. Our professional teams are hiring us, right? I try to make sure I’m giving them the same attention [as the U.S. national team] and I found that I’ve needed to cut down on time overseas for that reason, as well as to spend more time with family.

On Her Turf: Can you speak to the financial side of all of this? Are players in your sport able to make a living wage, or do they need to take second jobs to make ends meet?

Rachel Garcia: In the sport of softball, it’s tough. I feel like a lot of girls struggle post-season to figure out how they’re going to support themselves financially before the next season starts. A lot of girls put on clinics, take on coaching jobs, you name it. They’re just trying to pick up other jobs in order to be financially stable.

Jordan Larson: In volleyball, I feel like we’re lucky in that we’re actually able to make a pretty decent living by playing overseas. We’re also very lucky that our national team compensates us. I know a lot of other countries don’t necessarily have that [funding]. So between that compensation and playing overseas, we’re able to solely focus on our craft.

Maggie Steffens: For water polo, there’s definitely a range. You definitely can make good money abroad – if you’re willing to ask for it and if you’ve been able to prove [yourself] in that country.

In a way, you’re the one setting your own salary, and it’s really difficult to ask for money when you don’t know what the norm is.

I’ve been communicating with a lot of athletes to try [establish a standard] so that when girls come in, there is a bit more of a general consensus. So if you played college water polo, this is the minimum you should be making. Or if you’ve been to an Olympic Games, this is the minimum you should be asking for. I should probably also talk to volleyball and some of the other sports that have been able to figure out that financial standard.

We also receive a stipend from the USOPC and USA Water Polo, as well. So that’s liveable and it helps. But does that mean we can make water polo our full-time job? We can for the [pre-Olympic] year. Other than that, we’re usually all looking for second jobs – whether it’s coaching, teaching, working for a company, creating your own company – we’re definitely looking for ways to [support ourselves] financially.

On Her Turf: Looking ahead to the future, is there any one issue or topic that you think is most important to creating a more sustainable future for women in your sport?

Maggie Steffens: Obviously, if we could get more money in women’s sports, that would be amazing. But it’s going to take time.

This is probably because I play a “non-TV” sport, but I think exposure is also really important for women’s sports moving forward.

I grew up watching a lot of soccer games because I could drive an hour and go see a soccer game. Or I would go to a baseball game because the Giants played 40 minutes from my house. That exposure is exciting. It makes you want to be that type of athlete, right?

So how can we create more exposure for women’s sports… especially because sports like ours aren’t on TV all the time. You’re not turning on the TV and flipping through water polo, volleyball, and softball.

So [we need to] change that narrative and provide people with more exposure, whether that’s through live events, tours, or getting more of these sports on TV.

Jordan Larson: I agree with that. I’m from Nebraska, where college volleyball is very popular. There’s viewership, a fanbase… It’s on TV consistently and it’s crazy to me that [there’s all that support] and then it just drops off [after college].

I know Athletes Unlimited is trying to gain that exposure [at the professional level] and I’m so appreciative of that. But it’s tough. It’s an uphill battle, for sure.

Rachel Garcia: I think Maggie said it best. These sports need more exposure. You look at college softball, the viewers keep going up, higher and higher every year for the Women’s College World Series.

But then when I go to watch Athletes Unlimited on TV, it gets cut off because baseball is starting. So I feel like the exposure part is what we need the most.

On Her Turf: How much of this is wrapped up in gender, and how much of it is sport-specific? For example, Maggie, you touched on the fact that water polo is a ‘non-TV sport,’ but that’s also true for the men’s water polo, at least in the United States.

Maggie Steffens: This one is hard, with water polo itself being a smaller sport and struggling to get to the next level. There’s definitely a gender piece to it, but also some of it is just knowledge of the sport itself.

On the gender side… our women’s national team is one of the winningest teams of history, not just in water polo, but in all sports, men and women. But when we have a game at home, we don’t get any more fans than the men.

I think that shows that, unfortunately, while success is sometimes paired with [an increase in] viewers or being able to attract more people to the sport, [it’s more complicated than that].

For me, it’s been a frustrating ride. It’s like, what else can we do? We’ve won three gold medals in a row, our alumni have won medals at every single Olympics… We keep breaking these barriers and proving ourselves… and it just continues to stay in the same place.

And then when you go abroad… if you play water polo in Eastern Europe and you’re a man, you’re the man. Everyone watches the game, everyone knows the sport. It’s like seeing a basketball player on the streets here in the United States.

[But while] water polo is one of the most popular sports in Eastern Europe for men, there are no women’s teams in Eastern Europe other than Hungary. It kind of just makes you question: how can [this country] be the best in the world for men and it doesn’t even have a team for women?

On Her Turf: Before we conclude, anything else anyone wants to add?

Jordan Larson: Something that comes to mind for me, and I don’t think ‘tradition’ is [the right word], but I think about Sunday football and guys just sit on the couch all day. It’s like, ‘This is what we do on Sundays.’

And there’s nothing that has allowed women’s sports to have that space, that tradition. Like, this is our tradition on Monday nights. And that comes with exposure. It all comes back to that.

Maggie Steffens: We should start that. Let’s pick a day and just do it.

Jordan Larson: Instead of Bachelor Mondays, it could be Water Polo Wednesdays.

Maggie Steffens: 100%.

ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: The top storylines in women’s sports ahead of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC