Olympians lead Cardinal charge
Three U.S. gold medalists go the distance for Stanford
BOSTON -- If trying to stop two-time defending national champion Stanford’s momentum heading into the NCAA tournament wasn’t hard enough, add three Olympic gold-medalists to the oppositions’ list of concerns.
The Cardinal team features a trio of members from the 2012 U.S. Olympic team. Melissa Seidemann, Maggie Steffens and Annika Dries have been a driving force for Stanford’s run in this year’s tournament championship.
Head coach John Tanner’s squad is in search of its program’s fourth overall championship and third in as many seasons when it takes on USC for a consecutive year.
Entering Friday’s first-round competition, the Cardinal relied on its distinguished Olympians. This game plan was reiterated in its victory against seventh-seeded Iona, which was highlighted by Seidemann’s game-leading four goals. The Olympic members accounted for nine of the Cardinal’s first 15 goals against the Gaels.
“Well, they’re pretty good," Iona head coach Brian Kelly joked.
[assetId:177031:2013 NC Women's Water Polo Championship Asset]As talented as it is, this same Cardinal group hasn’t been together very long. While going to the Olympics was a dream come true, sacrifices needed to be made.
Seidemann and Dries each took a full year away from their lives at Stanford to train for the London Games. Meanwhile, Steffens deferred her first year as a Cardinal to do the same.
“We planned to take a year off and we did,” Dries said. “When we got back to Stanford, we realized how special of a place it is. Between balancing your studies, yours friends and the pool, you have it all there. We buckled down to train for that one year and then being back with the team was great.”
Now in her first season at Stanford, Steffens had arguably the most difficult transition heading into London. Just 16-years-old when she participated in her first international game as a member of the U.S. team, she also had some pretty big shoes to fill. Her older sister, Jessica, was a part of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Jessica also attended Stanford, playing for two years with Seidemann and alongside Dries for one.
Going directly from high school to practicing for the highest level of competition, Steffens knew she could go to Jessica for advice.
“I called my sister when I found out I was invited to be a part of the team,” Steffens said. “I started crying. I didn’t realize I was crying until I started talking. I couldn’t really speak; I just kept smiling.
“It makes you mentally tough. To finally hear those words, ‘You are going be an Olympian,' gives me chills until this day. You can’t replace the feeling and no one can take that away from you.”
After watching her sister come up one game short of a gold medal in 2008, Steffens understood the importance of competing in 2012. This time, she was in the water with her.
Dries, finishing her junior year, knows what this year means to both herself and her teammates. She feels there is a very specific connection between playing for an Olympic gold medal and trying to capture a national championship at a collegiate level.
“We were able to showcase all the hard work we had put in when we went on to win that gold medal,” Dries said. “Being in the moment [in Boston], even though it is on a different stage, still has that parallel of getting to a championship game and winning with a team.”
When asked to recall the feeling of being on the first-place podium at the end of a grueling 14-day tournament in Europe, Dries emphasized the importance of sharing the moment with others.
“A flood of memories and emotions came across,” Dries said. “The biggest thing is that you have this group of people that you did stuff together with that no one else has done. We have a group of shared experiences and those experiences have inspired others.”
With Dries and Steffens returning next year, Seidemann is getting ready to compete in her final game at Stanford. She has had a rush of emotions herself in just a little more than a year.
“Leaving Stanford was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” Seidemann said. “Looking back at it, it was a blessing. I had to put myself out there and I’m better for it now. I have a lot more to give to the team as a fifth-year senior rather than a fourth-year.”
Seidemann knows what she had with her teammates in London and those around her now is something she will cherish for the rest of her life.
“When we got to [London], our circle of family and friends was so tight,” Seidemann said. “When we were in that stadium and in that pool there was no one else there besides us.
“I certainly have a lot of American pride. Having pride for your school feels different though. It’s really close to home and to your heart. This team has had a lasting impact on me and I am ready to put my body on the line for them.”
With her shelf of trophies awaiting a potential addition when she returns to California, Seidemann has put talks of continuing her water polo career after Stanford on hold.
“I have only one game on my mind right now,” Seidemann said.