Stanford's Steffens adjusts to college life after 2012 Olympic success
STANFORD, Calif. -- If you expect to see Maggie Steffens light up the scoreboard in every Stanford women's water polo match this season, think again. She's a force on the top-ranked Cardinal team, but not a scoring machine like she was last summer in the Olympic Games in London, when she scored a record 21 goals and earned MVP honors while helping Team USA capture its first gold medal.
"She's doing what she has always done, which is a little of everything," Stanford head coach John Tanner said of the freshman driver. "Her whole career, she just pops up all over the pool. What she's great at is making people around her better."
Especially with fellow Olympians Annika Dries of Laguna Beach and Melissa Seidemann of Walnut Creek on the team.
"She's not getting a ton of shots because we're not necessarily putting her in those prime scoring positions," Tanner said. "So much of it is about mismatches, too. So I think with the U.S. team, people matched up to eliminate mismatches, but they didn't really have an answer for Maggie. She's brilliant about her shooting. She selects her time to shoot and she mixes up her shots and is really hard to scout against."
Steffens is still getting to know some her new teammates and learning how to play with them.
"I wasn't expecting myself to come and just score seven goals a game," Steffens said. "That's not really the type of player I am. I'm not going to force anything if it's not there. So right now I'm just filling the role of what needs to be done. If Kiley [Neushul] is up on a counter attack, I want to give her the ball. If Mel [Seidemann] is in set, I want to give her the ball because I know she'll score it. It will adjust as the season goes on."
Steffens knew the two-time defending NCAA champion Cardinal team would be deep, but she also understands that camaraderie and chemistry take time to develop.
"It's important to be able to come together and that's what we're doing right now," Steffens said. "It's still early in the season, so we have a lot to work on."
Steffens took a one-year deferral from Stanford last year to train with the U.S. Olympic team, and admits there have been transitions in and out of the pool.
"I think the biggest adjustment is no longer just having one focus," she said. "I was so used to putting my whole body and mind into water polo. Now, I'm in school again. I'm still adjusting to it, dealing with water polo practice, class, homework and tests. But I like it. I missed school a lot. I didn't realize it at first, but I think it makes me appreciate things more now to work harder."
Steffens said one of the biggest changes between playing for the U.S. Olympic team and Stanford, is that she's now competing against women her own age.
"Before, I was playing with women who had been playing forever and know the game pretty well," Steffens said. "I learned a lot from them and practices would be very, very competitive.
"Coming here, it's the same sort of deal. It's super-competitive and it's really fun, but I think it's been an adjustment not being completely surrounded by these women who have been influences in my life. Now, it's more learning and developing. Before, it was fine-tuning."
Steffens has been impressed by the skill and intensity of college players, many who played internationally. The big difference is that international play consists mostly of tournaments, while college water polo is primarily one head-to-head match.
"It's still very competitive and high level," Steffens said. "Every game I go into it's with the mindset we can't lose. That's just not an option."
Last month, Steffens was named the Best Female Water Polo Player of 2012 by the Federation Internationale De Natation (FINA). The youngest player on the U.S. Olympic Water Polo Team, she tied an Olympic record by scoring seven goals in the first game against Hungary, then added five in the Gold Medal Final against Spain.
Does she feel increased expectations to perform and produce for the Cardinal?
"I think it's more that I need to hold myself to a high standard and keep working hard and keep getting better," said Steffens, who hails from a family of Cal alums minus older sister and 2012 Olympic teammate Jessica, a 2010 Stanford graduate.
Steffens has already immersed herself in Stanford sporting events, attending football, soccer and volleyball games. She's clearly comfortable in her new environment.
"The most fun is being able to meet new people," Steffens said. "Everyone has something cool about them ... Every day, I feel like I'm meeting someone who is just awesome. I missed out on that last year."
Steffens said she didn't experience a letdown after the Olympics, but admitted her life was chaotic at times.
"I was just going full-speed with everything," Steffens said. "I definitely had some moments where I needed to tell myself, `Okay, take a chill pill. Relax.' That's something that's going to happen to me the next four years."
Steffens is leaning toward majoring in science, technology and society, and might pursue a career in communications. When she first arrived on campus, many students did double-takes when they saw her, no doubt the result of the television time she received playing in the Olympics.
"At the beginning of the year, people didn't really know me, but they kind of knew who I was," Steffens said. "Now I'm just Maggie. And that's kind of how everybody is. Which is cool."
And yes, her gold medal made a cameo on campus.
"I brought it to my dorm," Steffens said. "I had to go to New York and was flying out of here. All my friends came to my room and were super-excited. But now it's back home."
Steffens has absolutely no second thoughts about attending Stanford.
"This is definitely the right choice," Steffens said. "There's just so much that I have left to do in my life and this was definitely one of them."