The United States bench cheer on their teammates in the women's water polo gold medal match between the United States and Spain at the Budapest 2017 FINA World Championships on July 28, 2017 in Budapest, Hungary.
BUDAPEST, Hungary – Just when you thought Team USA had done it all in women’s water polo, the 2017 squad managed to accomplish something new.
Team USA won its fifth FINA World Championships gold medal Friday night, defeating Spain 13-6, while becoming the first team to win worlds the year after capturing the Olympic gold medal. Team USA was also the first women’s team even to reach the medal round at worlds after an Olympic triumph.
“It’s definitely a very hard thing to do,” said team captain Maggie Steffens. “You’re coming from a high of 2016 with a team you’ve built and then to come back the next summer with new women and try to create that same incredible team that can get it done. And so I’m very proud of this team and what we were able to accomplish this summer.
“I mean, this is insane. It’s incredible.”
Team USA celebrated by throwing coach Adam Krikorian in the pool and then treading water in a tight circle, savoring the moment before they had to leave the pool.
“When we were in that huddle at the end,” Steffens said, “I looked around and I said, ‘Soak it in, ladies. One, we’re in an amazing, amazing arena. And two, we’re a team of firsts. And we’re not afraid to keep trying to be teams of firsts – first to two gold medals, first back-to-back Olympic gold medal/World Championships. And we have that drive to try for more firsts.”
As darkness fell on a nearly full house at the Alfred Hajos Pool, neither team could get on the scoreboard for almost four minutes.
Team USA struck first as Melissa Seidemann scored at the 4:10 mark.
After a tight first quarter, the match was tied at 2-2 early in the second. Then the sharpshooters of Team USA, led by championship game MVP Kiley Neushul with four goals, tournament MVP Maddie Mussselman with three, and Steffens with two, steadily pulled away.
Musselman, who finished the tournament with 16 goals, said she was proud of the six newcomers to Team USA who joined the seven Olympians from Rio.
“Whether they were in the water for two minutes or the whole game,” Musselman said, “it shows that this culture is very competitive and we want to win no matter who we’re up against.”
The United States is the No. 1 team in the world and holds all of the major titles -- Olympic Games, FINA World Championship, FINA World Cup, FINA World League and Pan American Games.
The next year, Spain eliminated USA from medal contention at the 2013 worlds in Barcelona.
They had already played once this week, with Team USA beating Spain 12-8 in group play. In that match, Team USA took a 6-1 lead in the first quarter.
“We respect Spain a lot,” Steffens said. “We’ve played against them … forever. They always bring a lot of heart, a lot of fire, and so we knew were going to have to bring our best game. We knew we were going to have to have great defense, but keep going, push through every quarter and just go play by play until the final whistle.”
The United States previously won the world title in 2003, 2007, 2009 and 2015.
As the fourth quarter got underway, the announcer said, “Seven minutes to go in regulation, plenty of time.”
Then Steffens scored to make it 11-5, and the Spanish team couldn’t muster more than one goal the rest of the way while Team USA added two.
“It probably seemed easier than it was,” Krikorian said. “That Spanish team is tough. We knew that they would fight. They’re great competitors and I think that helps us prepare for the game. We win it with our preparation, our training and the connection and passion we have for each other.”
Returning from Rio were Steffens, Musselman, Neushul, Melissa Seidemann, Rachel Fattal (who had 14 goals and was joined Musselman on the All-Tournament team) and sisters Aria Fischer, and Makenzie Fischer.
But both goalkeepers were new, including starter Gabby Stone, who had seven saves while playing 29 minutes, 41 seconds of the 32-minute match.
Krikorian said Stone “replaced arguably the best goal-keeper in the world (Ashleigh Johnson).. People are questioning whether she’s got the ability and the toughness to be able to perform and take us to a championship.”
Steffens, the two-time Olympic MVP who also won her third NCAA title with Stanford in May, said the best thing about water polo is “that you get to share it with your teammates. And truly any success or gold medal is all encompassing of the hard work and the dedication that you put toward your team. So I just look forward to playing with these girls again and creating a team, and creating even better bonds, better relationships and hopefully making history as we move forward.”
Musselman is already thinking ahead.
“I’m very excited for the future of this team whether the girls stay or leave, new ones come in and more people come back,” she said. “It’s a good start-off to a new quad and a new lead-up to the Olympics, which is really exciting.”
However, Steffens, isn’t quite ready to commit to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
“I would love to keep playing the sport as long as I am able and passionate about it, and right now I clearly am very passionate about this sport and about this team and about representing the USA,” she said. “So I’m taking it a day at a time. Tokyo’s a long way away.”
Her coach is counting on her.
“I sure hope Maggie stays,” said Krikorian. “She’s one of the best, if not the best player in the world and the greatest leader in the world, which means more than anything. I think a lot of these players will. We won’t talk about Tokyo until 2020. We just wanted to make the most of this summer and this world championships and obviously we did that.”