Maggie Steffens poses at the Team USA Tokyo 2020 Olympic shoot on Nov. 23, 2019 in West Hollywood, Calif.
Sometimes, the surest sign of progress shows up in the unlikeliest of places.
Earlier this summer, it was tucked into the comments section of a social media post — traditionally more hornet’s nest than hotbed of hopefulness — trailing Maggie Steffens’s latest Instagram share. Fresh off a four-goal performance that led the U.S women’s water polo team to a win over Hungary and its seventh straight FINA World League Super Final championship, Steffens had uploaded a celebratory photo.
There was Steffens, surrounded by her teammates, her right hand around the trunk of a champion’s cup — the latest addition to an ever-expanding trophy case documenting the rise of the best women’s water polo team in the world.
Steffens’ left hand propped up one of those oversized checks you’d see a Powerball winner posing with or presented at some local charity golf event. The check itself was a prop, but the money was no joke. It was made out for $100,000, the prize pool payout to the event’s champion, which, for the first time in history, matched the amount paid to the winner of the men’s tournement.
Such historic developments (the type that used to be captured as “Kodak moments”) are now cause for instant ‘Gramming.
“This has been a long time coming,” Steffens wrote in the middle of her message, between a well-deserved high-five emoji and three arrows pointing onward and upward, “and it shows the direction women’s water polo is moving.”
A sentiment worthy of all three exclamation marks that followed.
The first few responses were a parade of more emoji hieroglyphic chatter, alternating high fives and clapping hands. But then there was a comment, from someone familiar.
“Wait what. You get paid!! That must be nice!!!”
That was the reaction of Maureen O’Toole. An American water polo pioneer, O’Toole competed for Team USA when her sport made its Olympic debut in 2000 — a mere century after the men first plunged into the Summer Games. Soon after she stepped down from the Olympic podium, the proud owner of a new silver medal, O’Toole became a club coach in northern California. One of her first athletes at Diablo Water Polo was an energetic 8-year-old named . . . Maggie Steffens.
O’Toole’s short congratulatory post said everything you need to know about how far women’s water polo has come, in the pool and beyond.
“She was able to pass down her values and taught us what it took for women to make it into the Olympic Games,” said Steffens, who will compete in her third Olympics later this month in Tokyo. “Now, our way of paying that back is through the way that we play. Through success, your voice is heard a bit louder.”