No matter how dominant or seemingly unbeatable a team might be, everyone is going to lose at some point.
That’s the nature of sports.
Still, after nearly four years of ruling the pool, the U.S. women’s water polo team’s second-place finish to Australia at the FINA Intercontinental Tournament in early May came as a surprise. The last time the U.S. women left a major international tournament without the title was the 2013 world championships.
Beginning Tuesday, the women have the chance to start a new streak when they face the Netherlands to open the FINA Women’s World League Super Final in Shanghai.
“I guess simply because we’re Team USA and we want to win everything we do, my expectation is we’ll put our best foot forward and do our very best to make sure we come home with the big W,” said attacker and two-time Olympic gold medalist and 2012 Olympic MVP Maggie Steffens.
The U.S. women made history at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 when they became the first women’s water polo team to win back-to-back gold medals. They are the only women’s team to medal in every Olympics since the sport was introduced in 2000.
This is a new quadrennium, however, and the team that will enter the pool on Tuesday is different from the team that exited the pool in Rio last summer. The roster for the Intercontinental Tournament, which was held during the NCAA season, featured a handful of experienced players including Olympians Melissa Seidemann and Aria Fischer, but it also contained a host of younger players who’ve been rising through the water polo pipeline.
Five members of the 2016 Olympic team played this past weekend at the Kunshan Cup in Kunshan, China, which served as a preliminary event for this week’s tournament. In addition to Seidemann and Fischer, the roster included Makenzie Fischer, Kiley Neushul and Maddie Musselman. Steffens and Rachel Fattal stayed back in the United States to attend the ceremony for the Cutino Award, presented to the top men’s and women’s college water polo players, but are now back with the team for the Super Final.
Team USA won the Kunshan Cup by rallying in the third quarter to defeat Greece 11-8 in a shootout on Sunday.
Joining the above seven players this week will be goalkeepers Mia Rycraw, who made eight saves and blocked all three of Greece’s attempt in the shootout this weekend, and Gabby Stone, Alys Williams, Jordan Raney, Mary Brooks and Jamie Neushul.
Steffens said that while the overall goal this early in the quad is still the same — to be the best, play their best and represent the United States the best — the approach does change somewhat when mixing returning players with newcomers.
“I think the way we go about that maybe is a little different right now because we’re starting to create a new team,” she said. “It’s no longer 2016. It’s a completely new squad, so we’re trying to develop this team as we bring people back from the last quad and bring people up who haven’t been on the team before.
“It’s a really fun time because you’re basically molding together this team that’s about to go on an incredible journey together.”
In addition to facing the Netherlands, Team USA will also play Japan and Russia in group play before the quarterfinal round begins on Friday.
The U.S. women are prepared to get back to their winning ways and add another championship to the list that includes the last three World League Super Finals. A victory this year would match the team’s longest winning streak at the event, which lasted from 2009-12. Other major tournament victories in recent years include the 2014 World Cup and 2015 world championship.
Going into the Rio Games, Team USA had the distinction of being the only team to hold all four major titles at once.
However, streaks and statistics aren’t exactly at the top of the list of things the players think about much less talk about, Steffens said. They’re simply concerned with being the best.
“The cool thing for us is that instead of it being a streak, it’s more about that pride and that legacy we’re able to leave and that culture as a team,” she said. “We strive to be excellent and strive to be successful and leave that mark everywhere we go. So in that sense, streaks are telling of that culture we try to embody and create and the legacy we hope to leave.”