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.

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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%.

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Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

Diana Flores looks to break down gender barriers with turn as AFC offensive coordinator in 2023 Pro Bowl

Courtesy Diana Flores

Diana Flores admits she was surprised when she became a viral sensation last spring, courtesy of a 15-second slow-motion clip showcasing her evasive maneuvers and fancy footwork while leaving at least three defenders in the dirt during Mexico’s 2022 national collegiate flag football championship.

“I never expected someone to record that moment,” said Mexico City native Flores, who led her team – the Monterrey Tech Borregos – to their third consecutive national title as a senior last May. “I was just having fun. I was just playing the game I love and then days later to see that it was viral on the internet — it was crazy. But at the same time, it was exciting because I remember when I was younger, I didn’t have a lot of flag football role models to follow. So now, for me to be a role model for many boys and girls that play my sport is something that really makes me happy and proud and also motivates me to keep getting better.”

Flores, who led the Mexico Women’s National Flag Football Team to a gold medal at the 2022 World Games, will have the chance to promote her sport on one of the world’s biggest stages this weekend when she serves as the AFC offensive coordinator for the NFL’s 2023 Pro Bowl Games, featuring the first-ever AFC vs. NFC Flag football games on Sunday in Las Vegas.

Organized in partnership with RCX Sports, the NFL’s flag football operating partner, and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), Sunday’s Pro Bowl event will feature three 7-on-7 AFC vs. NFC flag games. Each game will be 20 minutes in length (two halves) and played on a 50-yard field with 10-yard end zones. Flores will be joined by Peyton Manning as the AFC head coach and Ray Lewis as defensive coordinator. On the NFC side, U.S. Women’s National Flag Football team quarterback Vanita Krouch will serve as offensive coordinator, with Eli Manning as NFC head coach and DeMarcus Ware as defensive coordinator.

“I think that this has been one of the best things in my life,” she recently told On Her Turf about her Pro Bowl appointment. “It is like a dream. I mean, I grew up watching football, watching the NFL, playing flag football. And now to be able to be part of all of this — it is bigger than my biggest dreams.”

Flores’ football dreams began as when she was just 8 years old. Her father — who played quarterback for the perennial football powerhouse Monterrey Tech program — took her to a practice and she fell in love with the sport. But as the time there were no teams for girls her age, so she played with girls twice her age and used it to her advantage, focusing on her own abilities and sharpening her skills. By age 14 she was playing NFL Flag in Mexico, where she was the only girl in the league, and at 15 she started playing NFL Flag in the U.S, where she finally played on an all-girls team.

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“I remember when I started playing, I used to receive a lot of like comments, directly and indirectly from other people, like, ‘Why do you play that sport? That’s not a girls’ sport, that sport is for boys, you’re get injured, you’re going to get hurt, don’t play with boys, that’s too rude.’ And the list keeps going. But my mom and dad were so supportive. They always encouraged me not to listen to anybody, to just follow my passion.

“And I think thanks to them, I’ve always had this mentality that gender doesn’t matter. It just matters how passionate you are about your dreams, how hard you work for what you want to achieve. And that you will always demonstrate what you’re made for, depending on the hard work you do. So, I’ve lived through that [negativity], I have experienced that. And I think that it has been one of my biggest blessings to be able to experience — for myself — what sport can do and how gender barriers get broken when you follow your dreams and you connect with other people through your passion.”

At just 16 years old, Flores made Mexico’s national team, playing in the first of four Flag Football World Championships – so far. Last summer at the World Games in Birmingham, Alabama, the 24-year-old Flores led Mexico to a 6-0 record, which included two wins over the U.S. women, who took silver. In the gold medal game against the United States, she completed 20 of 28 pass attempts for 210 yards and four touchdowns in Mexico’s 39-6 victory. She finished the tournament with 23 touchdown passes, the third-most among women’s teams, and she was the only starting quarterback to beat USA’s star QB, Krouch, who is 19-1 in international tournament play.

All that international experience so early in her career has given Flores a wise-beyond-her-years approach to playing flag football, a sport where she was frequently the only female player on the field and often the only Latin American as well.

“When I first came to the U.S., it was a little shocking to notice that I was probably the only Latin American girl playing,” she recalls. “But I think that it was easy for me because I got all the support from my coaches and my teammates. And since a young age, I think that I started to realize that sometimes what you do is for something bigger than yourself. That’s why you have to always give your best, in any situation. Even at that young age, I understood that I was representing more than myself on the field, I was representing Latin American people, Latin American girls in a sport that [many people thought] was meant to be for boys.”

RELATED: NFL still pushing for Olympic flag football with a chance ahead

One door Flores hopes to help open is the one leading to the Olympics. Flag football is on the short list being considered for inclusion in Los Angeles in 2028 Los Angeles. As an ambassador for flag football for the NFL and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), she’s participated in talks with the International Olympic Committee, and just last month she was joined by First Lady Dr. Jill Biden in Mexico City where they joined forced to promote women’s empowerment and inclusion.

“I think for me, that experience is one of my top three,” she said of spending time with Biden. “I call them gifts from life, something that you didn’t expect it to happen, and somehow, one day, you’re right there in front of the First Lady. I admire her for what she does for boys and girls, for empowering woman and giving opportunities for everybody to achieve their dreams. So it was truly an honor to meet her, and also to be able to keep impacting my sport, not only on the field, but [off] the field, and have the opportunity keep inspiring others and keep impacting the world.”

As for what she hopes fans at the Pro Bowl and viewers at home take away from Sunday’s flag football showcase, Flores hopes they’ll see the characteristics that made her fall in love with flag in the first place: creativity, speed, agility, teamwork, passion and a lot of heart.

“I hope to show to all little girls and women that dreams come true, that nothing is impossible, to keep inspiring and opening opportunities and doors for women in sports, especially in the world of the NFL and football and flag football,” she says. “We’re going to make history, and I am so proud and happy for that. I’m really hoping that it is just the first step, not only for me, but for all the women that are coming after me.”

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Flag football star Vanita Krouch ‘living the dream’ ahead of NFL Pro Bowl debut as NFC coordinator


When Vanita Krouch got the news that she was named NFC offensive coordinator for the 2023 Pro Bowl Games, featuring the first-ever AFC vs. NFC Flag football games on Sunday, the U.S. Women’s National Flag Football team quarterback admits her jaw nearly hit the ground.

And then she realized something even more profound.

“For the longest time, thinking about the moment, everything, you’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is a dream come true. Is this really happening?’” said the 42-year-old Krouch, known as the “Tom Brady of flag football” with a 19-1 record as USA’s starting quarterback in international tournaments since 2018.

“But then I started thinking to myself: You know what? None of us grew up thinking of this as a dream to obtain. So really, it’s kind of reversed where I’m living a dream. I get to be a pioneer in this growth of flag football for all and inclusion for all, youth and adults, [women and men]. It’s such an inclusive sport, and I get to be a part of this growth and still actively play. It’s exciting. I’m literally living the dream. I’m very much like, ‘Guys, don’t pinch me. Let me keep sleeping.’”

Organized in partnership with RCX Sports, the NFL’s flag football operating partner, and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), Sunday’s Pro Bowl event will feature three 7-on-7 AFC vs. NFC flag games. Each game will be 20 minutes in length (two halves) and played on a 50-yard field with 10-yard end zones. Krouch will be joined by Eli Manning as NFC head coach and DeMarcus Ware as NFC defensive coordinator. On the AFC side, Mexico Women’s National Flag Football quarterback Diana Flores will serve as offensive coordinator, with Peyton Manning as head coach and Ray Lewis as defensive coordinator.

But Krouch’s journey to the Pro Bowl stage began under the unlikeliest of circumstances and was inspired by her own family odyssey, which began in Cambodia during the horrific regime of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. Krouch’s mother, Phonnary Krouch, fled the country with three young sons in tow, running by night and hiding by day to escape, finding safety initially at a refugee camp in the Philippines. That’s where she welcomed Vanita, in September 1980, and two months later the family made its way to the United States. Krouch’s father exited the picture upon their arrival in America, leaving Phonnary to raise four children alone.

“In a nutshell, my mom is an amazing woman,” said Krouch, who first found sports via an elementary school flyer advertising youth soccer in Carrollton, Texas. “On the journey, she had a lot of trials, tribulations, … and after our dad left us, it was just mom and four kids in this little one-bedroom apartment. So, it was a challenge. I’m just so amazed by her strength and will to never give up.”

She also credits her mom for standing up to then-stereotypical notions that Asian girls should not play sports.

“I’m just thankful, honestly, that my mom allowed me to break the Asian culture barriers of a woman playing sports because that’s not easy,” she said. “She faced a lot of backlash from the community. But she said, ‘Hey, my child’s making good grades. She’s healthy, she’s good. She’s staying off the streets. I don’t see a problem.’ And she just let me do it. I was just lucky to have a mom that let me spread my wings.”

Krouch also had a few mentors along the way. Her elementary school PE teacher, Toni Neibes, stepped in to pay for those initial soccer fees and continued her support as Krouch transitioned to basketball in the fourth grade. She fell in love with the sport and excelled at it as well, eventually earning a full scholarship to play college basketball at Southern Methodist University. She wears the No. 4 to this day in honor of Niebes, who wore the same number as a young athlete. She also credits her fourth-grade teacher, Judy Ward, as having a lasting impact after the teacher made a habit out of showing up for her youth basketball games.

She pays tribute to them both through her clothing line, 4Ward Apparel, which features ever-changing collections emblazoned with relevant slogans encouraging female empowerment, inclusion and her personal mantra of “paying it forward” – something she does with the line itself. Each month, Krouch donates a portion of the sales to individuals, families or organizations in need.

After graduating SMU in 2003, Krouch continued to play basketball in semi-pro and adult leagues, but she was still searching for something to satisfy her competitive drive. She and a former college teammate stumbled on flag football during a Google search for local Dallas-area activities, and the rest – as they say – is history.

“It was like I drank the Kool Aid and I never looked back,” she says of her start in flag in 2006. “It’s just like every game, every play is a new challenge, and it’s addictive for a competitor, so I just fell in love with flag. I actually think I’m way better at flag than I was at basketball.”

She moved into the quarterback position through some sly maneuvering by current USA Women’s Flag Football head coach Chris Lankford. They were playing together in a local tournament when he “tricked” her into the QB position, despite Krouch knowing “zero football language.”

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“One day I showed up for a tournament and I asked, ‘All right, guys, who’s our quarterback?’ And he says, ‘We’re looking at her,’” she remembers. They kept the plays simple, and her team made it to the playoffs that season. Krouch has been a QB ever since.

Krouch joined the national team in 2016 and was inducted into the National Flag and Touch Football Hall Fame that same year. Last year at the 2022 World Games in Birmingham, Alabama, a 41-year-old Krouch set a new mark as the oldest Flag football player, man or woman, in the games, and she ranked second among women with 25 touchdown passes at the tournament where USA won silver.

She aims to bring that expertise to the field at the Pro Bowl games, where she’s looking forward to seeing NFL players take on the flag football style type of plays. “Flag is a very finesse, quick game, a lot of footwork, and these guys can’t grab or hold, no downfield contact or downfield block or anything off the line,” she explains. “So it’s going to be exciting just to see skill for skill, footwork for footwork, defense to offense, and to see flag football language with those type of elite athletes.”

As for the biggest challenge, Krouch believes it will be crafting a concise playbook and language that puts everyone on the same page. “A challenge for me is getting a coach’s mindset,” she adds, “I have to actually come up with plays ahead of time and I don’t usually have premeditated plays in my head. I just read it so for me to tell Kirk Cousins or Geno Smith [what to do], it will be different, you know?”

But beyond the Pro Bowl, Krouch is excited that flag is being considered for inclusion as an exhibition sport in the 2028 Summer Olympics. While she’s keeping a hopeful eye on that development, she’s also working to shape the next generation of potential athletes as a physical education teacher at La Villita Elementary in Irving, Texas.

RELATED: NFL still pushing for Olympic flag football with a chance ahead

“It’s an honor to be a role model – for other youth flag football players, for my students, both boys and girls,” says Krouch. “Then at my campus and in my community, it’s amazing to be able to break the barrier of like, ‘Asian women can’t do this.’ And then to be at my age, still doing this, I feel very lucky and blessed. …I think I still got some years in me.”

As for what she hopes viewers and fans walk away with after watching the Pro Bowl flag games this weekend, Krouch feels confident folks will walk away enlightened by the show.

“I just hope that they have fun with it,” says Krouch. “And for those who don’t know flag to be like, ‘Wow, that’s really amazing. Maybe that’s something I really can get my son or daughter into at a young age.’ So I just hope that they see that the sport is real – it’s not just something we play at recess. It’s a real thing now. I think they’ll see that the world loves it, the world can play it and is playing it.”

Be sure to check back with On Her Turf later this week when we catch up with AFC coordinator and Mexico Women’s National Flag Football Team quarterback Diana Flores.  

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