THE STANFORD women's water polo team had practiced its end-of-game play—a triple-pick option—thousands of times, complete with loud music to mimic a frenzied crowd. More often than not, the play failed.
But on May 14 in Indianapolis, with 14 seconds left in the national championship game and the Cardinal tied with UCLA 7--7, Stanford coach John Tanner called the triple pick once more. This time it clicked. Driver Maggie Steffens scored to clinch the Cardinal's fifth title in seven years.
The score was the culmination of a remarkable run for the 24-year-old Steffens. At the 2012 Olympics she set a record for most goals in a tournament (21) and was named MVP as the U.S. took gold. In '16, as captain, Steffens led Team USA to another gold. In between, she helped Stanford to two NCAA titles, won the '15 world championship and was twice named world player of the year.
Steffens believes in the fitness benefits of not simply swimming but playing water polo in particular. "A swimmer will push off the wall and glide. For us, there's no wall," she says. "Our initial force is self-created."
Water polo players must stay afloat during play (they are not allowed to touch the wall or the bottom of the pool), which requires full-body power treading. "If your chin is in the water, you can't make a good pass," Steffens says. "You need to use your legs so that your chest is out of the water, and your core has to be tight. Then you can make a firm throw."
Steffens trains six days a week, three in the water. In one torturous exercise, a jug of water is poured on her head while she treads water, followed by a high-speed lap. "We work on a lot of stop and go. You have to be able to swim 10 meters as fast as you can, stop and then go again."
Steffens will graduate June 18 with a degree in science, technology and society, then pursue a masters at Stanford in management science and engineering while training for the 2020 Olympics. "It's far away," she says, "but at the same time, it's coming up real fast."
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Maggie Steffens's tips for power swimming like a water polo player
Tread water moving forward for one lap. Then tread water moving backward for one lap, and do one to each side. Work toward using your elbows to paddle.
Off the Wall
Tread water at mid-pool, then do a 15-meter breaststroke sprint. Stop, tread for 10 seconds, then sprint again. Repeat 10 times without touching the wall.
Try building stamina by holding your breath and swimming as far as comfortable underwater. As it gets easier, add distance.
For more athlete training profiles and tips, go to SI.com/edge