Aug. 10, 2012
At the 2012 London Games, in the fourth Olympic Women's Water Polo tournament, the United States finally broke through and captured the gold medal that had eluded it since the sport's Olympic inception in 2000. And in another departure from the past three tournaments, there was little tension and no heartbreak this time for the U.S. as it cruised to an 8-5 win over Spain in Thursday's final.
The win earned Olympic Gold for five Stanford women's water polo players, past and current. Brenda Villa '03, U.S. captain and one of just two members of the squad to have played in all four tournaments, got her well-deserved gold. Jessica Steffens '10 added gold to her silver from 2008 while younger sister Maggie Steffens '16 and fellow Olympic debutantes Annika Dries '14 and Melissa Seidemann '13 brought youthful energy to the successful U.S. run.
Villa could scarcely believe the long-desired gold was hers after the game.
"I am speechless. It still hasn't sunk in," Villa told the media in London postgame. "I can't describe it. It's the end of a journey, and I got my fairy-tale ending."
No heartbreak. Nothing like the first tournament in Sydney 12 years ago, when the U.S. tied the final with Australia at 3-3 late only to have the Australians snatch the gold by scoring the game-winner with one second remaining.
Or like Athens in 2004, when the U.S. led Italy 4-2 heading into the final period of their semifinal matchup, only for the offense to go cold while the Italians reeled off four goals to pull of the 6-5 upset.
And there would certainly not be a repeat of the 2008 final in Beijing, when the Netherlands scored with 26 seconds remaining for a 9-8 win, relegating the Americans to bridesmaids for a third time.
No, there wasn't any of that Thursday in London's Water Polo Arena in the Olympic Park. Although Spain took a 2-1 lead early in the second period, the U.S. turned the game around with a 7-0 run that stretched to the 7:20 mark of the fourth period.
Unlike the preliminary-round 9-9 draw between the two teams, Spain would not bounce back from a fourth-period deficit, only scoring three window-dressing goals over the final six minutes.
Interestingly enough it was the U.S. squad's youngest member, Maggie Steffens, who provided the spark for the U.S. offense throughout its gold medal-winning run.
Steffens, who deferred her freshman year at Stanford to train with the U.S. team in 2011-12, scored five goals Thursday, as the Spanish, like every other team in the draw, had no answer for the 19-year-old. The younger Steffens led all players with 21 goals in the tournament and needed just 27 shots to score those goals, an incredible success rate of 77.8 percent.
Stanford women's water polo head coach John Tanner, who attended the knockout rounds in London, was impressed with and proud of the performances of his alumnae.
"Maggie was terrific everywhere in the pool, scoring five goals in five different ways," Tanner said. "Brenda looked aggressive, firing on our first possession and putting up a couple other great shots, one of which was in the goal before the Spanish goalie saw the ball. Annika was versatile and composed, and Mel and Jess were the catalysts for that second quarter outburst."
"The match was won in the second quarter, with both traditional 2-meter players on the bench," Tanner continued. "Melissa and Jessica guarded Maica Garcia, Spain's primary 2-meter player, whom they count on for three-quarters of their setting. They wore her down in a key five minute stretch, when we outscored them 4-0, including two by Maggie and one by Mel. But it wasn't just the goals; it was also a matter of breaking their will. At 5-2, both setters totally rested and Garcia exhausted, the game was over. From that point on, they could muster only a modest threat at 2m and they had to take longer range, end of clock perimeter shots. They tried a few isolation plays, but those didn't generate much either."
As Tanner alludes, the Stanford quintet was so dominant on both sides of the pool not just in Thursday's final, but over the entire tournament. Maggie Steffens (21 goals), Seidemann (seven), Villa (six), Dries (two) and Jessica Steffens (one) accounted for 37 of the 58 goals scored by the Americans, a 58.6-percent makeup of the U.S. offense.
Defensively, the Cardinal players contributed to a U.S. effort that allowed just 48 goals over six matches (8.00 goals per game) in London.
In the end the gold medal breakthrough gives the U.S. players the chance to leave the Olympics with no regrets, no "what ifs?"
For Villa, it is a fitting end to her international career, as the 2002 NCAA champion and Peter J. Cutino Award winner retires from competition a gold medalist. Jessica Steffens may still have another Olympics remaining in her career, and sets her sights on Rio 2016.
As for the three debutantes, Dries, Seidemann and Maggie Steffens will return to The Farm this fall, ready to help the Cardinal to a third straight NCAA title. While Dries and Seidemann were top scorers for Stanford's 2011 championship team, all three Olympians were in the stands this past May in San Diego when the Cardinal captured the 2012 crown against USC.
Yet no matter what happens in the next collegiate season, the next FINA World Championship or even the next Olympics, what counts is that this Cardinal quintet, spanning Stanford's first NCAA title in 2002 and its most recent in 2012, got USA Water Polo that Olympic Gold Medal.
Team USA's Olympic Gold Medal Run (5-0-1)
Group A (Preliminary) Play
July 30 - vs. Hungary (W, 14-13)
Aug. 1 - vs. Spain (T, 9-9)
Aug. 3 - vs. China (W, 7-6)
Aug. 5 (Quarterfinal) - vs. Italy (W, 9-6)
Aug. 7 (Semifinal) - vs. Australia (W, 11-9 OT)
Aug. 9 (Final) - vs. Spain (W, 8-5)