Maggie Steffens is a two-time Olympic gold medalist and captain of USA Water Polo. A graduate of Stanford University, she led the Cardinal to NCAA championships in 2014, 2015, and 2017. Steffens also serves as an athlete advisor for Just Women’s Sports. Below, she spoke with JWS about the state of sports media today and the need for athletes who can be role models in and out of sports.
What frustrates you most about the current sports media landscape today?
Something that frustrates me is the lack of well-balanced role models. I think that’s something that has changed with how much technology we have today and how much access we have to screens and different social media platforms. We’re constantly being forced to watch certain types of sports and a certain group of athletes. And they’re amazing as athletes, but outside of their sport, I don’t think they have as much to offer in terms of inspiring people whose interests go beyond just sports.
Do you have examples of good role models you could share?
Selfishly, I think of my teammates. Not only are they Olympic gold medalists, but they’re Stanford, USC, Cal, and UCLA graduates. They have their MBAs. They have interests outside of water polo, whether it’s art or engineering. Some are trying to train to be a doctor while they compete. They all have good morals, they’re fun, and they’re friendly. And I know there’s tons of other athletes and teams out there like that, we just don’t do a good job showcasing them. As a society, I think we should be using sports to give our kids well-balanced role models who can inspire them as athletes and as people. I think that’s something that’s very undervalued nowadays.
Is there anything that frustrates you particularly about the coverage of women’s sports?
I just think there could be such better coverage of women’s sports. There’s not nearly enough exposure, on TV or in the media, and I think that’s the biggest roadblock for women’s sports moving forward. Something else that is a bit of a double-edged sword is focusing too much on a female athlete’s gender.
I’m very proud to label myself as a woman and as a female athlete, but sometimes it feels like people are using that label to diminish someone’s accomplishments. I think of people like Serena Williams, Kerri Walsh, or Katie Ledecky. They aren’t just good “female athletes.” They’re badass athletes, period. They’re some of the best in the world, men or women. We don’t need to say they’re good because they’re women. They’re good because of what they’ve accomplished in their sport.
In terms of covering a wider range of sports, you yourself are a two-time Olympic gold medalist. You’ve won three NCAA championships. You’re only 26 and you’ve had this incredible career, but there’s still a lot of people who don’t know you because of a lack of coverage around water polo. What are your thoughts on that?
I think there’s two sides to it. One thing that we really love about our team is our team culture. We’re constantly working on how to improve not just as athletes, but as people, as teammates, and as role models. That’s something we talk about every single day. And it’s easy to do that when you’re not as noticed, to be honest. It’s easy to feel the humility you need to tackle that blue-collar grind, because you’re doing it all behind the scenes. You’re not being recognized on the streets or anything like that, so you can put your head down and just focus on the grind and on the feeling that we’re doing this for each other. We’re doing this for our team and for our country and for our families, not for publicity.
There’s something about that that’s right and that’s, naively, quite magical. As a team, we’re always talking about how to share our sport with the world. But ultimately, I think we are pretty grateful to have a kind of quiet public life. It’s a blessing in disguise at times. But it’s also a bit frustrating. Because when I think about my teammates, I know that these are people that should be sponsored by big companies. If I had kids, these are the athletes I would want them to look up to. These are the women that have been changing the game and changing the way we perceive both women and athletes.
Are there any questions you’re tired of being asked as a female athlete?
I couldn’t tell you how many times either a person in the media or a potential sponsor has told me, oh, it’s too bad you don’t do another sport. That baffles me. I’m like, it’s because of water polo that I’ve been able to do all these amazing things and become the person I am today. It’s because of water polo that I even have the opportunity to talk with you, and no you’re telling me it’s too bad I didn’t do another sport? Why can’t we change that? Why can’t the story be, “I’m so glad you chose water polo. Let’s share that with people.”
You’re an advisor to Just Women’s Sports. Can you talk about why you want to be a part of what we’re doing?
I really appreciate the values behind the company’s mission. There are incredible female role models in sports all around the world, and they’re not given the notice they deserve. And I want to help get these stories out and support these athletes. I think women need to support women, men need to support women, women need to support men — whatever it takes, we need to help showcase these incredible people from all walks of life, from every kind of sport. These are role models who could make a major difference in other people’s lives, and Just Women’s Sports understands that. I’m excited to help the company introduce these athletes to a much wider audience.