For the Steffens, water polo is a family affair
The family business is an American tradition. Some families sell vacuum cleaners, while others maintain law or medical offices for generations. For the Steffens family, the business is water polo.
Sisters Jessica Steffens, 24, and Maggie Steffens, 18, are key players on the two-time defending world champion U.S. women's water polo team. The top-ranked American squad seeks an unprecedented third consecutive FINA world championship starting Saturday in Shanghai. Jessica and Maggie, playing on the national team together for the first time, represent two in a long line of water polo-playing Steffens family members.
It starts with their father, Carlos, who caught a "fever" for the sport after seeing his first water polo match as a child in Puerto Rico. Years later, legendary Cal coach Pete Cutino recruited Steffens. He left Puerto Rico and became a three-time All-American at Berkeley, leading the Golden Bears to the 1977 NCAA championship.
The family tradition continues with their uncle, Peter Schnugg, a two-time All-American at Cal in the 1970s, and too many water polo-playing Schnugg cousins to count.
Carlos met his wife, Peggy, Peter's sister, through water polo. There's also Jessica and Maggie's brother, Charlie, 22, the Cal water polo team captain, and sister, Teresa, 20, who competed for the Golden Bears before leaving to focus on her academics.
For the Steffens family, water polo is a way of life. While raising his children, Carlos would use water polo metaphors to explain everyday situations, like driving lessons or playing dominos with the family. The siblings have followed suit.
"I find myself doing that now," Charlie said. "I know when I get together with Jess -- we were driving in the car the other day looking for a parking spot -- and she was saying that getting that perfect parking spot on the street after you have been looking for it for a long time is like that goal after you have been in a slump. Just really random things like that get related to water polo."
It wasn't always that way, especially for Jessica, a valuable utility player who is back with the national team after missing all of 2010 due to a shoulder injury. Growing up in Danville, Calif., she excelled in soccer and swimming before switching to water polo in high school.
"I did not want to play water polo," Jessica said. "I had seen a few videos of it, and I just thought it was way too complicated and crazy. I knew that my dad had played it, and for some reason I was just like, "Oh, it's too much.' "
That attitude started to change when she entered Monte Vista High School.
"It was really surprising to see her pick up water polo because she was really successful at all these other sports," Charlie said. "[Once she tried water polo], it sort of exploded and kept improving every year.''
One Olympic silver medal from Beijing and a stellar NCAA career at Stanford later, Jessica seems to have adapted quite well to the family sport. She hopes to add a world championship and an Olympic gold to the family legacy.
For Maggie, who, in the position of attacker, faces some of the roughest action in the pool, playing water polo was a natural fit. With three older siblings and a whole mess of cousins already on board, she jumped into the pool at an early age and demonstrated skill and a fiery competitive nature. But she was never forced into playing the family game.
"We all kind of started right around the same time, and my dad obviously had so much experience playing water polo," Maggie said. "So we kind of just jumped right into it, and once I started playing and having the feel for the competition of it, I started growing a passion for the sport, then it just kept growing and growing."
At 18, Maggie will compete for her first world championship and has committed to Stanford. Despite coming from a family of Golden Bears, she will be the second Steffens child to play for the Cardinal.
Their father has made peace with his daughters' decisions to play for the respected rival, knowing it was the school that was best for them and where they could be the most successful. It's yet another way for the sisters to express their desire to compete.
"The strengths for both of them is their competitive drive and their determination to achieve their goals," U.S. women's water polo head coach Adam Krikorian said. "Whether it's academically or athletically, they are both extremely competitive and determined individuals. You can see that certainly, and that comes out as soon as they touch the water - it's like a magnifying glass."
The sisters' similarities extend outside the water as well.
"They have similar mannerisms," Krikorian said. "I give them both a hard time. I think they're both fairly goofy and pretty funny at times to laugh at, not necessarily laugh with. But you can tell the respect and love and admiration they have for one another is certainly second to none."
That Maggie and Jessica will play together on the national team for the first time is the source of great pride for the Steffens family, particularly their father, who taught them the game.
"My kids are on the way to do better than me, not just in sports," Carlos said. "Once you taste that flavor of being among the best in the world, in whatever you do, that taste will never be forgotten, and you want that and that's basically what I was trying to teach my kids. I taught them the passion of the sport and what the sport's life is like."
Charlie expressed similar pride in his sisters' accomplishments.
"I have seen them work. I have seen them when they were just kids and I have seen them grow up,'' he said. "Now they are doing their own thing and it is extremely impressive. I always knew that they were going to do something great. It is just amazing that they get to do it together.