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)
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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.

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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.

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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

Justine Wong-Orantes’ atypical path to becoming one of the best liberos in the world

Justine Wong-Orantes hits the ball in the women's semi-final volleyball match between USA and Serbia during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
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It’s been 20 years since the same nation held both the Olympic and world volleyball titles at the same time, but libero Justine Wong-Orantes is looking to help lead Team USA accomplish that very feat at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships in the Netherlands and Poland. Competition began on Friday and the U.S. is currently 2-0 after group play wins against Kazakhstan and Canada.

“We’re trying to win, for sure,” Wong-Orantes told On Her Turf. “I think, especially with the new turn of the program and the new year of the quad, we just have a really nice blend of veterans and also newcomers on the team.”

The 14-woman roster for Team USA, which is ranked No. 1 in the world and won its first Olympic title last summer, features six players from that gold-medal-winning team. And while Wong-Orantes is among the 2021 U.S. Olympic team veterans, she’s still a relative newcomer to international play.

The Southern California native enjoyed a notable junior career – she was 12 when she became the youngest female to ever earn an AAA rating in beach volleyball – and was a standout collegian at Nebraska, where she was a member of the 2015 NCAA championship team. But Wong-Orantes followed a different path upon graduation, initially choosing not to go overseas to play professionally.

While she was first selected for the U.S. national team in 2016 and played a handful of international tournaments in the following years, it wasn’t until she started playing professionally in Germany in 2019 that she saw the potential to elevate her position on the roster. In particular, the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics gave her an additional year of overseas experience, which she calls “a blessing in disguise.”

“I just felt like I was still in that developmental stage,” she said. “And a whole year postponement allowed me to go overseas and really get all the touches, all the repetitions, and just kind of expose myself to international volleyball another year. So I was, in hindsight, pretty thankful for that COVID season because I got an extra year under my belt, and I think that just gave me a ton of confidence.”

Ahead of the Olympics, Wong-Orantes earned “best libero” honors at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball National League in Rimini, Italy, which helped secure her spot on the Olympic roster. In Tokyo, she followed up with another standout performance and was named best libero of the Olympic tournament.

As to how the Wong-Orantes transformed into one of the world’s top liberos, she points to her background as a beach volleyball player. She began competing at age 8, and her first partner was Sara Hughes, a star on the AVP Pro Tour who also won two NCAA titles with USC.

“I think having that background and just the court awareness that beach volleyball forces you to have allowed me to really have a good read on the game,” said Wong-Orantes. “I think that’s what makes a great libero is just reading and always being reactive towards the ball.”

Wong-Orantes also credits the assistance of mental coach Sue Enquist, a former UCLA softball coach and U.S. national team coach, who now helps teams work on their culture and relationships. Enquist began working with the U.S. volleyball team during the pandemic and has continued in her role ever since.

“We just worked on a lot of stuff within ourselves, within our program, how to communicate with each other off the court, and I think that honestly propelled us into such a high, high level with how we worked with each other, and then that transferred onto the court,” explained Wong-Orantes, who noted the team has Enquist on speed dial while at the World Championship. “I really commend Sue. I just really give a lot of praise to her because I think our culture was never bad, but I think [she] just transformed into a different level.”

2022-09-26 - FIVB Volleyball Womens World Championship 2022 - Day 4
ARNHEM, NETHERLANDS – Justine Wong-Orantes (far right) poses for a photo with her U.S. teammates after defeating Canada at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship on September 26, 2022. (Photo by Rene Nijhuis/Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Wong-Orantes said she and her U.S. teammates are on their toes for the world championships, which features twice as many teams (24) as the Olympics and a “more grueling” format.

“It’s going to be a long tournament, and I think we’re really going to need all 14 of us that are here. I’m pretty certain that, at any given moment, someone’s going to be called on and someone’s going to need to step up in big moments.”

2022 Ascendant LPGA: How to watch, who’s playing in Texas’s annual signature event

Atthaya Thitikul of Thailand hits her second shot on the 16th hole during the final round of the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.
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The LPGA make its annual stop in The Colony, Texas, this week for the 10th edition of the Ascendant LPGA benefiting Volunteers of America, where Thailand’s 19-year-old rookie Atthaya Thitikul comes in hot off her second career win and second playoff victory this season at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.

Leading the 132-player field at Old American Golf Club, located at Golf Clubs at The Tribute, are Texas residents and past champions Cheyenne Knight and Angela Stanford. They’ll compete for the $1.7 million prize purse alongside major champions Nelly KordaLydia Ko and Brooke Henderson. Last year’s Ascendant LPGA champion, world No. 1 Jin Young Ko, will not be defending her title after announcing earlier this month she would be missing several weeks due to a nagging wrist injury.

This past weekend in Arkansas, Thitikul took the lead with a 10-under 61 in the second round and shot 68 in the final round to finish regulation tied with Danielle Kang at 17-under 196. Thitikul, who won the JTBC Classic in March in a two-hole playoff vs. Nanna Koerstz Madsen, drained an 8-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole to secure the win over Kang.

How to watch the 2022 Ascendant LPGA 

Coverage of the 2022 Ascendant LPGA from Old American Golf Club in The Colony, Texas, can be found on Golf Channel, with streaming options available any time on any mobile device and online through NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

  • Thursday, Sept. 29: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Friday, Sept. 30: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Saturday, Oct. 1: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Sunday, Oct. 2: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel

Who’s playing in the 2022 Ascendant LPGA

Six of the top 10 players in the Rolex World Rankings are among the field in Texas, including:

  • No. 2 Nelly Korda
  • No. 4 Lydia Ko
  • No. 5 Atthaya Thitikul
  • No. 6 Brooke Henderson
  • No. 7 Lexi Thompson
  • No. 10 Nasa Hataoka

A number of local Texans also are in the tournament, headlined by past champions, Angela Stanford (2020) and Cheyenne Knight (2019), and two junior champions of the Volunteers of America Classic Girls Championship, who are playing on a sponsor exemption: Yunxuan (Michelle) Zhang (2022), a freshman at SMU, and Avery Zweig (2021), a high school sophomore from McKinney, Texas.

Past five champions of The Ascendant LPGA

2021 Jin Young Ko (South Korea) 16-under 268 1 stroke Matilda Castren
2020 Angela Stanford (USA) 7-under 277 2 strokes So Yeon Ryu, Inbee Park, Yealimi Noh
2019 Cheyenne Knight (USA) 18-under 266 2 strokes Brittany Altomare, Jaye Marie Green
2018 Sung Hyun Park (South Korea) 11-under 131 1 stroke Lindy Duncan
2017 Haru Nomura (Japan) 3-under 281 Playoff Christie Kerr

Last time at The Ascendant LPGA

South Korea’s Jin Young Ko carded a final-round 69 to maintain her 54-hole lead at Old American Golf Club and held on for a one stroke win at the 2021 Volunteers of America Classic, her eighth career LPGA tour title. Ko finished regulation at 16-under 268, edging Finland’s Matilda Castren by one stroke.

It kicked off a five-win season for Ko, who had just lost her No. 1 ranking to Nelly Korda the week prior after holding the top spot for 100 straight weeks. She regained the No. 1 ranking back in October 2021, after earning her fourth win in seven starts at the BMW Ladies Championship.

More about Old American Golf Club

Opened in 2010, the Old American Golf Club is one of two clubs at The Tribute, a lakefront resort community on Lewisville Lake in The Colony, Texas. Designed by Tripp Davis and 12-time PGA Tour winner Justin Leonard, Old American plays as a Par 71 and stretches to 6,475 yards on the tournament scorecard.