Maggie Steffens shooting during a preliminary match against Venezuela at the Pan American Games Lima 2019 on Aug. 6, 2019 in Lima, Peru.
Maggie Steffens received photographs of a crowded bar in Puerto Rico as she was competing across the Atlantic Ocean at the Olympic Games London 2012.
Steffens had to laugh as she saw people packed inside the establishment owned by two of her father’s close friends with musical instruments and glasses of Cuba Libre in their hands. She could also see they were watching a water polo game on TV.
Everyone had gathered in Condado, an oceanfront community in San Juan, to cheer on Steffens and her older sister, Jessica, as they helped lead the U.S. women’s water polo team to its first gold medal.
“I think they give me a little extra energy when I need it, my little Puerto Rican boost, I call it,” Steffens said. “There’s just a lot of love there, a lot of passion, and I’m really grateful for that.”
Even though Steffens was born and raised in northern California and attended college at Stanford University, the two-time Olympic gold medalist considers Puerto Rico “home.” It’s where her father, Carlos, was introduced to water polo as a kid and later played on the Puerto Rican national team.
Steffens has tons of childhood memories from visiting Puerto Rico at least once a year with her family. Even now, she can’t wait to return to the Caribbean island to eat the traditional Puerto Rican dish known as arroz con pollo and the cream cheese-filled pastry called a quesito.
Steffens takes pride in being Puerto Rican, especially during National Hispanic Heritage Month, which continues through Oct. 15. She took a break from training for next summer’s Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 to discuss everything she loves about Puerto Rico, from the rum to the amazing coffee she gets at Kasalta, her favorite bakery in San Juan.
“Obviously, we’d love to celebrate Puerto Rico more if we could, but it was awesome,” Steffens said. “We had a Puerto Rico newscaster come and do a segment on Jess and I before the 2012 Games, which aired in Puerto Rico. We’re very proud to be Puerto Rican, and we’ve always brought the gold medals back to Puerto Rico to celebrate.”
Steffens’ parents moved to Condado shortly before Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in September 2017, causing massive devastation to the island and resulting in more than 3,000 deaths.
Steffens was on a trip in New Zealand while her parents and sister were in Puerto Rico when the Category 5 hurricane hit. Since Steffens was in a remote part of the world at the time, she couldn’t follow the news on TV. She had to rely on her boyfriend for updates about Puerto Rico.
“I remember during Maria wondering, ‘When are we going to know they’re OK?’” Steffens said. “You know, to me, the waiting for the phone call was the scariest part.”
Steffens’ parents helped alleviate some of her fears, though. Before the hurricane made landfall, she received a photo of her parents salsa dancing with the lights off in their apartment as they waited for the storm.
“I think Puerto Rico does a really great job of celebrating life and celebrating the people you have in your life that make it the way it is,” Steffens said.
Looking to help the island rebuild, Steffens and her family started a GoFundMe campaign called “Push Ups 4 Puerto Rico” that was similar to the ice bucket challenge. The campaign raised $20,000 for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Puerto Rico.
Steffens said her “favorite place on earth” is Culebra, a small island off the east coast of Puerto Rico. One of her father’s dreams was to someday own a house on Culebra, and he and Steffens’ mother, Peggy, started building a home there in 2007.
While Steffens can stay at her parents’ place in Condado when she visits Puerto Rico, she’d much rather be in Culebra. She called it a “magical place.”
“That, to me, is like the ultimate place to go. Time stops. You are just in full island mode,” Steffens said. “It reminds me of family. Like all of my friends know, if you get invited to Culebra, that’s a very special thing.”
Steffens said her family has been talking since the beginning of the year about everyone spending Christmas in Puerto Rico. She joked she’s counting down the days until she gets there. There’s just something special about the way Puerto Ricans celebrate Christmas, she said.
Instead of singing Christmas carols around a piano like she might do in California, Steffens said her family grabs musical instruments that they keep around the house in Puerto Rico. They then barge into a neighbor’s home, dancing and singing Christmas songs in Spanish. The neighbor’s family then joins Steffens’ family, and the large group marches on to the next neighbor’s place.
“When I was living abroad, I never really went back to California. I would just go back to Puerto Rico, which was nice to just be on the island,” Steffens said. “I have a bunch of clothes there. It’s my home really. If I’m visiting home, that’s where I go.”
Alex Abrams has written about Olympic and Paralympic sports for more than 15 years, including as a reporter for major newspapers in Florida, Arkansas and Oklahoma. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.