RIO DE JANEIRO – Imagine this scene last winter. Maggie Steffens, the leader of the U.S. women’s water polo team that holds every major international title, stands and reads from two pieces of paper, with tears in her eyes.
In front of her teammates, Steffens recites a letter. It is directed toward a 54-year-old woman standing next to her. The rest of the players in the room are sitting, watching.
Steffens is speaking, emotionally and vulnerably, to Maureen O’Toole-Purcell.
O’Toole-Purcell is legendary in water polo.
She joined the U.S. national team in 1978 at age 17 and spent every year in the program through 2000, save retirements in 1991 (to give birth to daughter Kelly) and 1994 (because she thought women’s water polo would never be added to the Olympic program).
In 1997, women’s water polo was added to the Olympics to begin at the 2000 Sydney Games (men’s water polo has been part of the Games since 1900).
O’Toole-Purcell, then just O’Toole, unretired and made the Sydney team at age 39. She is the oldest U.S. Olympic water polo player – man or woman – in history, according to Olympic historians.
O’Toole-Purcell was coaching shortly after the Sydney Games when an 8-year-old Steffens, part of a water polo family, became one of her Bay Area pupils. O’Toole-Purcell imparted the sport to Steffens from grade school until she went off to Stanford.
Steffens, speaking after helping the U.S. women to their second straight Olympic title Friday, remembered that day last winter when she read that two-page letter to O’Toole-Purcell.
“It allowed me to go back into that journey and how much she impacted my life,” said Steffens, wearing the gold medal around her neck that O’Toole-Purcell wasn’t able to play for during her prime.
O’Toole-Purcell and the U.S. took silver in Sydney, after Australia scored a controversial final winner with 1.3 seconds left.
In her letter, Steffens remembered lessons learned from O’Toole-Purcell not only at the pool, but also riding in her car.
Steffens and O’Toole-Purcell’s daughter grew up as best friends. They learned the fundamentals, pride and respect and the mental and physical toughness to play this physical game from O’Toole-Purcell.
“She was like my second mom,” Steffens said. “I just talked about how I would not be here if it wasn’t for her. I wouldn’t have the values that I have now if it wasn’t for her.”
U.S. coach Adam Krikorian hatched the idea for every player on the team to write a letter about a coach who inspired them growing up. Each then read it to that coach in front of the entire team.
“A lot of times you live your entire life without saying thank you to people,” said the 42-year-old Krikorian, who guided the U.S. to its second straight Olympic title, after one of his two older brothers suddenly died two days before the Opening Ceremony. “We talk a lot about just not hiding anything. And being very open and honest with each other and even emotional and vulnerable at times.”
Krikorian called the letters exercise the most emotional of many team-building times in this Olympic cycle.
Due to scheduling, it took several weeks to fit every reading session in.
The U.S. Olympic team is made up of 13 players, but the national-team player pool was larger back then, months before the Olympic team was named.
They were all done before the team flew to the Netherlands for its Olympic qualification tournament in March, where the top four nations would earn places in Rio.
“As a spectator, my teammate is up there being vulnerable and being emotional about someone in their life that meant so much to them,” said KK Clark, a Bay Area kid like Steffens. “So not only did we learn about that impact that person had, we got to meet them face to face, but we also got to see each other in really vulnerable and really emotional places.”
O’Toole-Purcell planned to watch Friday’s final from her home in Danville, Calif., a few minutes from where the Steffens family lives. She remembered the letter.
“It was really long,” O’Toole-Purcell said in a phone interview before the U.S. clobbered Italy 12-5, the biggest final blowout in five Olympic women’s tournaments. “I wish I had it in front of me. She just talked about how I inspired her, and she told stories of things that we had gone through. … She always wanted to go to the Olympics, and now here she is. She appreciated everything she had in the past.”
O’Toole-Purcell likes to say she told her husband when Steffens was 11 years old that she would become the best player in the world. Steffens, just 23, is already a two-time Olympic champion and two-time FINA Player of the Year.
“You could tell back then she had it,” O’Toole-Purcell said. “She’s a hard worker and talented and a leader. I felt lucky that I had her.”
After each player read letters to their coaches, the coaches returned the favor. They created a video, about 15 minutes long, that was shown to the players.
In the video, O’Toole-Purcell told this story about Steffens:
“She was 8 years old, and they didn’t have 12-and-under water polo, so we played 14-and-under. Eight and 9-year-olds against 14-year-olds who are a lot bigger. They were just getting pummeled. They were all crying. She’s kicking me, holding me, pushing me. My daughter was the worst crier. Maggie looked at Kelly and said, ‘What number? I’ll take her.’ My daughter was 9. Maggie was 8. So Maggie gets to her, and I didn’t see what happened, but the girl gets out of the pool crying. And so after the game, my husband and I were like, ‘Maggie, what did you do?’ In a serious face, she said, ‘I put her in the washing machine.’ What is the washing machine? She said, ‘Well, my dad taught me that in the backyard pool. Push her under for a really long time, let them come up for air, and then you push her back under.’ The girl was twice her size. This is Maggie to a T.”
There’s another story that connects this U.S. Olympic team to the past.
All 13 players were given the book, “Sydney’s Silver Lining,” before they departed for Rio.
Four hundred pages document the history of U.S. women’s water polo, how the first Olympic team qualified for Sydney in its last chance, with profiles of each player on the roster.
First-time Olympian Kaleigh Gilchrist finished it during the knockout rounds this week. She said the stories of O’Toole-Purcell and other pioneers influenced how she felt wearing her gold medal Friday.
“There’s so much more that goes behind the medal, hard work, sacrifices and the commitment we have and standards and values,” Gilchrist said. “It’s amazing, those girls who were part of the 2000 group and even the women that came before them need to know the gold medal is as much ours as it is theirs. They really set the standards of USA Water Polo and pushed the sport. We are feeling all the benefits from their time.”
After Friday’s medal ceremony, every team member draped her gold medal around Krikorian’s neck, something that is becoming a tradition.
This roster included nine Olympic rookies of 13 players overall, including three teens, with an average team age of 23. This dominance may continue for several more years.
Whenever the U.S. women reconvene in Los Alamitos, after their well-earned celebrations, they will head to a place called the team room.
“Our sacred space,” Clark said.
This is where the letters were read. A poster of O’Toole-Purcell hangs on one wall in the team room. Written on it is a quote talking about the definition of the word opportunity.
“A reminder that we didn’t have an Olympic team until 2000,” Steffens said, “so we’re representing more than just ourselves.”