Women's water polo grabs its gold

LONDON -- When the heartache began, The Answer was just seven years old. She hadn't even started playing water polo yet, not to mention learned how to shred opposing defenses or chuck daggers past the greatest water polo goalies in the world.

Back in 2000, Maggie Steffens instead spent her free time chasing around soccer balls and fine-tuning her budding swimming skills. Worrying about winning an Olympic gold medal in water polo was the farthest thing from her mind.

Heather Petri and Brenda Villa didn't worry about Olympic gold much then, either. Sure, the heartbreak of losing to Australia in the closing seconds of the gold-medal match in Sydney was tough to absorb, but the two young stars of American water polo figured they would be back. They were young. They were talented. They would absorb the pain from their gold medal loss, learn from it and return stronger.

But 12 years later, as they walked into London's Water Polo Arena for the gold-medal match against Spain on Thursday night, a cruel pattern had developed. Every four years they had shown up for the Olympics, given everything they had and yet ended up on a medal podium listening to someone else's national anthem while staring at another country's flag.

This year, this night, would be their last chance to go home without pain. Without jealousy. Without having to convince themselves that a silver or bronze was something to be proud of. When they stood on the medal podium and looked down their torsos, the only thing they wanted to see Thursday night was gold.

Lucky for them, they had The Answer on their side. At just 19 years old, Maggie Steffens was too young to understand the pain from Sydney, Athens and Beijing. Too naive to know what it felt like to lose three gold medals in a span of six seconds. She was just here to have fun. Score a few goals. Keep out of the way. And do whatever her coach asked of her.

"When you're young, you just enjoy the moment," U.S. coach Adam Krikorian said. "You don't think."

Steffens had plenty to enjoy. Her five goals on five shots, combined with goalkeeper Betsey Armstrong's eight saves, helped the U.S. beat Spain 8-5 for the first gold medal in U.S. women's water polo history.

"It's unbelievable. It's awesome," Petri said. "I don't have words. I don't have words right now. I'm so proud of my team. They're just so awesome. This is what I dreamed of."

Though water polo is a true team game, Steffens proved to be the difference for the U.S. throughout the tournament, scoring a tournament-high 21 goals in her first Olympics. After scoring four goals in an 11-9 semifinal victory over Australia on Tuesday, she made all five of her attempts on Thursday to help turn a 2-1 deficit into an 8-2 lead the Americans wouldn't relinquish. After Steffens' first goal, the stadium PA announcer played a brief clip of the Michael Jackson song "Bad." It was fitting for the girl who loves all things Jackson.

Her success was a tribute to Krikorian, who had put Steffens on the team as a 16-year-old in 2009 with expectations of greatness. In that first match, he knew when a bloodied Steffens came to him asking to go back in that he had something special.

"I had this vision for her," he said. "I knew she would be here, in this moment and play just like that. She's one of the best in the world in my opinion."

Steffens' older sister, Jessica, who is also on the team, was equally impressed. Sort of.

"I wouldn't say it's like she dominated," Jessica said. "I think she sees an opportunity and goes for it. She has a great mental toughness and she's not going to back down. It's pretty cool. Now she gets to go to college."

Before the game, the two sisters and Olympic village roommates had spent the day together, looking at pictures of their family and their dog, trying to focus on anything but the game that awaited. Instead, Maggie said she thought of every possible outcome in her head. Trailing late. Trailing early. Leading late. Leading early.

"I tried to nap, but I couldn't nap," she said. "It was impossible."

To win gold, the U.S. team overcame so much. Not only the Olympic failures of the past, but a nailbiting shootout to win the Pan Pacific Championships and qualify for the Games, as well as a disappointing fifth-place finish at the 2011 world championships in Shanghai. It was after that loss that Krikorian brought his team together to have an open dialogue about putting the last-second Olympic loss in Beijing behind it.

"In order to get over things, you can't keep it in," he said. "That was an important step for us. We talked about the frustrations of the past and coming so close. For them to be able to communicate that, it left the veterans a little vulnerable. But when you do that, it allows a team to come together even tighter."

For now, there will be no more discussions of the ugly past. Only memories of a joyous night in London. After the match ended, all the Americans -- and the coaches -- jumped into the pool. They hugged, they high-fived, they fist-pumped. And then they gathered in a circle and started kicking and slapping the water to make it splash all around.

A few minutes later, the team stood in an unfamiliar place on the medal podium: the top. They watched as their flag rose to the rafters and their song echoed through the arena.

In the press tribune, one of the volunteers for the London Olympic Organizing Committee looked on. And when "The Star-Spangled Banner" came to an end, he looked at an official standing next to him and said one word.