After London, Maggie Steffens hopes to lead by example

Maggie Steffens, right, and sister Jessica helped lead the U.S. women's water polo team to its first Olympic gold this past summer. AP Photo/Alastair Grant

With every sunrise and sunset, with the change of another season, the moments from the greatest two weeks in Maggie Steffens' young athletic life drift further and further away. Four months after carrying the U.S. women's water polo team to its first gold medal, the 19-year-old is adjusting to life as a college freshman and Olympic champion.

There are days like the one not too long ago, when Steffens shared her gold medal with a mother who immediately wanted to take a picture biting the hardware.

"I was like, 'Uh, no,'" Steffens said. "I brushed it off as no big deal, but inside I was cringing. I mean, really? This isn't some chocolate bar."

And on the day she moved into her Stanford dorm this fall, there were the whispers. She heard them. "There goes the Olympic girl."

"I told them, 'Nope. My name is Maggie,'" she said. "I'm the same Maggie I was before all of this."

She may be the same person, but the way strangers view her is infinitely different. Four years ago in Beijing, the feisty 15-year-old watched from the stands as her older sister, Jessica, and other members of the U.S. team lost in the gold-medal match for the second time in three Olympics. She insisted it wouldn't happen again.

Then in London this past summer, as the youngest member of the U.S. team, Maggie scored an unfathomable 21 goals on 27 shots -- including a 5-for-5 showing in the 8-5 gold-medal victory over Spain -- to win the Olympic crown and make "The Star-Spangled Banner" the song of choice at the tournament's conclusion.

When her world stopped spinning, when Steffens finally returned home to California and had a second to hop in her bed, close her eyes, take a deep breath and try to absorb what had just happened, the memories that most prominently flooded the 19-year-old's head weren't the images everyone would have expected.

Sure, she thought about the goals she scored and the plays she made. Of course she reflected on the moment her gold medal was hung around her neck and the night her and Jessica paraded around the pool deck with the American flag draped behind them. The gut-wrenching semifinal win over Australia is there, too, a night when the Aussies forced overtime with one second left. But the memories that make her smile most are the ones no one knows about.

"Nothing can trump winning the gold medal, the semifinal game going into overtime," Steffens said. "I remember looking at each other that night and being like, 'Nothing can break us.' It gives me the chills to even talk about it. But honestly, it's the little moments that lead up to it. That's what I remember most. That's what I'll always take with me."

Moments like the afternoon of July 30, when Steffens stepped onto an Olympic pool deck for the first time against Hungary. Some two minutes before the match was to begin, as the team walked through the locker room door and onto the deck to be announced, Steffens could barely breathe.

"It was unreal," she said. "I thought I was going to throw up. I didn't think I'd be that nervous. I'm rarely ever that nervous. But you walk out there and hear 'USA, USA, USA' and you see your family in the crowd, they give you that smile. It's all just so much. And then you have to get focused and bring it back."

Or a few minutes later, when she stood in a tightly wound circle with her teammates before the match and no one said a word. They just smiled and nodded at one another. Or the moment when she dipped her head under the water in an attempt to wash away her nerves and it worked. So much, in fact, that in her first Olympic competition Steffens would go on to score seven goals on eight shots to go along with three steals and an assist in a 14-13 win. After the match, when a reporter asked her what the game was like, she couldn't remember.

"I've never felt like that before," she says now. "I've never wanted something so bad in my life. I've been working on being a gold medalist and pretending to wear Olympic medals since I was three years old. When you love something and have so much heart for one thing, it makes your emotions blow up. I had so much energy running through me, I just had to resort to my instincts. I was just out there playing."

After winning gold and returning home to her family's Danville, Calif., home, Steffens found her street decorated with balloons and streamers. There were posters on her house. And most of her family and friends were waiting for her, including her labradoodle Speedo.

This fall, she's a freshman at Stanford after deferring her admittance last year to train with the national team. She will compete for the Cardinal water polo team in January. Being at a place like Stanford, Steffens said, is humbling and can quickly keep any 19-year-old Olympic medalist from getting complacent or growing too big of an ego.

"Look at the types of people I'm surrounded by," she said. "There are Olympians, people who are starting their own companies, things like that. Yes, I've done this, but there's so much more I can do. Without this place, who knows where my mind would have gone, but being here gives me that extra push."

As an Olympic gold medalist, she said she now feels a sense of responsibility to carry herself the right way, to make the right decisions. Everything she does, she says she wonders, "Is this how I want to be portrayed by people who look up to me or kids who want to do things like me? You don't just have to think for yourself anymore. You have to think for others."

For now, her thoughts center on doing the right thing, building a new life for herself at college and, yes, helping defend the Olympic gold medal in four years in Rio. She hasn't played a competitive match since London, but can't wait for Stanford's season to get under way.

"Just talking about it makes me want to get in the pool right now," she said. "I'm hungry. I want another one. I want this to be just the beginning."