U.S. water polo players Jessica Steffens, left, and her sister Maggie Steffens… (Alastair Grant / Associated…)
LONDON — Maggie Steffens was in the middle of everything as the orchestral music swooned through the Water Polo Center, and she and her U.S. teammates locked arms, about to take an inches-high step a good 12 years in the making. She ducked her head forward, looked left and looked right.
"Ready?" Steffens asked.
Ready didn't begin to describe it, not nearly. Not the program burdened by three Olympics' worth of frustration. Not Steffens, either, the effervescent 19-year-old with a howitzer attached to her shoulder, the goal-hoarding dervish who helped deliver the U.S. from its past by playing better than anyone on the planet.
Everyone was ready for this. Everyone had been long ready for this. And the 8-5 victory over Spain on Thursday brought it to them finally, the guys in purple blazers carrying the trays of gold medals slung around players' necks one by one, right after they took that small but considerable step up.
"It's been a long four years since Beijing," U.S. goalie Betsey Armstrong said. "It's been up and down, personnel changes, a coaching change, everything you can think of. This is perfect."
Athletes always say the medals are heavier than they expected, but silvers for the U.S. in women's water polo in 2000 and 2008 hung like anvils. Earlier this year, veterans from the Beijing effort laid bare for the team's ingenues just how gutting that was, how inescapable the disappointment remained to that day.
In the room were players like Brenda Villa, three times an Olympian and down to her last chance, and Steffens, who had watched from the stands in Beijing. She and other newcomers were, in a formal sense, on the team. After that talk, they'd been let in.
"It left the veterans a little vulnerable," U.S. coach Adam Krikorian said. "But when you do that, it allows a team to come together even tighter."
Still, as always, something extraordinary has to happen for a team to gild a legacy. A preposterous 21 goals later, including five in the final, Maggie Steffens happened. Though the youngest member of the team, she understood the past trials better than most, as her sister, Jessica, played in 2008 and her first water polo coach, Maureen O'Toole, in 2000.
When the Beijing gold-medal match ended and the U.S. had come up short again, Maggie Steffens and her father exchanged a glance.
"Now it's your turn," he said.
"I knew eventually she would be playing at this level, it was just a matter of when," Jessica Steffens said. "Adam saw something in her and wanted to bring her under the wing of this team. And she totally rocked it."
On her first day with the national team in 2009, at age 16, Maggie Steffens remembers seeing these women drink coffee and thinking: Maybe I should be drinking coffee. She wanted to be just like them. She wound up serving them a different kind of stimulant, breezy and unburdened and so talented that she was like an adrenaline needle to the heart.
"We've shared so much," Steffens said. "I wanted this for myself. But more so I wanted it for Brenda and [Heather] Petri to be able to retire and go out with the happiness of having gold. For the '08 girls to fill that void."
After time expired Thursday, the pool party was on. Steffens gathered the players and coaches and trainers — they'd jumped in too — in a circle and soon all that was between them was white water from a couple of dozen flailing arms.
She was first to demand a flag from the crowd. ("I see it on TV," she explained.) As her teammates gathered for cameras, Steffens was front and center, holding up stars and stripes, the new face of U.S. women's water polo beaming as the past receded out of view and the future descended upon the now.
"She's been incredible her whole life," Jessica Steffens said of her sister. "I don't think she's going to be stopping any time soon."