A trio of United States of American water polo women puts Fort Knox to shame when it comes to a display of raw gold. Maggie Steffens, Maddie Musselman and Kaleigh Gilchrist have mined a staggering 49 gold medals between them and had a reality check recently with a break from the international circuit in an effort to recharge body and mind ahead of the Paris 2004 Olympic Games. Here’s what they were doing…
USA head coach Adam Krikorian, who sidelined three of his stars at the FINA Women’s Water Polo World League Super Final in Tenerife last month, so he could concentrate on the next tier of internationals, stated in Scoring Goals recently: “We also wanted to give some freedom to our veterans, so they can explore things outside of sport and come back a bit more rejuvenated when things ramp up.”
This prompted Scoring Goals to interview this incredible trio to find out how that break worked out.
Captain Maggie Steffens (above and with Kaleigh Gilchrist below), whose bio reads like a Fort Knox (home of the USA gold reserves) vault, winning three Olympic golds, four World Championships, three World Cups, an incredible 11 World League golds and three Pan American championships (plus a 2013 Super Final bronze), said: “This year’s FINA World League Super Final was supposed to be right after FINA World Championships back in July, so the intention was always to play some of our younger players to gain experience, develop, and simply grow as individuals and as a team. It also was an opportunity for some of the older players, like myself, to focus on our health (including mental health), and rest/recover to best prepare our minds and bodies for full-time training starting in January.
“The Super Final was the first major tournament I haven't suited up in my career (stretching back to 2010), so it wasn't easy! This intention remained the same even though the tournament was postponed. So, in Tenerife, the purpose was opportunity; for growth and development with long-term goals in mind, which the girls took great advantage of and it was fun to be a supporting role for them as they stepped up,” Steffens said.
“I’m training at home in Long Beach currently and we have had a lot of USA camps, so we have been able to get together to train during those times, as well. This includes a lot of rehab, weights, etc, to get the body ready for full-time training. “ I am also focusing on my career with my company, 6-8 Sports, (co-founded with fellow USA great Tony Azevedo) and wearing my businesswoman/CEO cap alongside my water polo cap. With our USAWP (United States of America Water Polo) and MPSF (Mountain Pacific Swimming Federation) partnerships, as well as growth internationally, it's been nice to have some time to focus on our company from home.
“Balance has always been important in my life, so as I continue to pursue my Olympic dream, it's important to pursue my entrepreneurial dreams as well. Often in sport, we forget that balance and we see it affecting players later on in our lives.
“So, just as we prepare our minds and bodies for the Olympics, I want to best prepare myself for my career and life outside of water polo. One of my most important values is growth, so why not grow in other areas of my life, as well? ! challenge myself. That's what this journey is all about!
“Otherwise, I'm simply grateful for this time at home in Long Beach (with my fiance) to focus on the different things in my life that bring me joy and look forward to being at the next competition with my girls. Lots of work to do,” Steffens said.
Maddie Musselman (above and below), named the most valuable player at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics last year, has 11 gold medals from two Olympic Games, four World Championships, three Super Finals and two Pan Americans.
At just 24, she has been “part of the national team for a pretty long time. This whole year, I have been able to go back to school to work on my future in the medical field for when I’m done playing water polo.”
On her continued presence on the international stage, Musselman said: “I haven’t made that decision. I love water polo and I will be playing for a long time. My eyes are on Paris (Olympics).
“After Paris or after LA,” she said of when she will call it quits. “I am trying best to prepare myself for after water polo. It’s been great, when you are playing day in, day out. I have just graduated from UCLA this year.”
She said the break had been “refreshing”, having come back from a health injury. “My body has had time to heal. It’s nice, also, to have that mental break,” she said.
“I definitely missed out on Tenerife, but it’s a good thing and I want to come back after the break and watch the team grow. It’s motivating by not being there.
“I’ve been a huge supporter of development and the pipeline for all levels of athletes. I used to be that new player who needed that experience.
“I got the opportunity to play and get that deer in the headlights, exposing to the pressure. It’s good for the group getting that experience for the first time.
“You need to play at that level to get that experience. Such a big jump,” Musselman said.
Musselman studies at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania — a growing area for the sport. She grew up on the opposite coast in California, so that's a new change for her.
Kaleigh Gilchrist (above), the world class professional surfer with two Olympic water polo gold medals and three World Championships, has her sights firmly set on a third Olympic crown as she battles injuries, which precluded her from contesting the Super Final.
“My left labrum has been fixed and on December 20 my left shoulder will be fixed.
“I hope to play the World Cup in April and my goal is to come back in the best shape possible. I might not be 100 per cent, but the ideal would be to play limited minutes.
“We enter a full-time training schedule at the end of May, so I hope to play some decent water polo by then. Before the injury, I was surfing a bunch of contests, but when water polo calls, surfing gets put on the backburner.
“They have restructured the World Surf League into regionals — Huntington Beach to Barbados — I used to fly down your way (Australia) often. You now do regional qualifying for the World Tour,” Gilchrist said.
On her longevity in both codes, Gilchrist said she was “pretty realistic” about her age. “There’s been times when it was super-challenging. I started both sports at the age of six, so that was 24 years ago.
“Water polo demands more time, schedules; coaches and players depend on you. I will do a couple of (surfing) events for seed points for the end of the season, which helps to get in all the contests the following year. I will be done (with water polo) after Paris and I’ll give it (surfing) a two-year shot after that.
“I still do crazy three-hour (water polo) sessions and rush to the beach and get my (surfing) fix. My ultimate goal is to help this team to Paris,” she said.
With such support and enthusiasm from these headline players, USA’s future at the top is assured.
A younger star player also had time off — Stefania Haralabidis — but her time as a legend is yet to come.
The first outing for the squad will be a three-test series against Australia in Perth on January 11, 13 and 15, 2023 and all three said they will be there in a playing or support capacity.