The US won the country’s first gold medal in women’s water polo, going one better than they did in Beijing to finally claim the sport’s top prize and end 12 years of painful near-misses for four-time Olympians Brenda Villa and Heather Petri.
The US beat Spain 8-5 in the Olympic final on Thursday to claim what is the country’s first Olympic water polo title since 1904, when they won the men’s event, while the Spanish secured the country’s first medal in the sport since 1996.
US goal-scoring ace Maggie Steffens, 19, put away five to cement her status as the tournament’s top scorer and a new force to be reckoned with in the women’s sport.
The youngster’s dazzling display in her first Olympics enabled her teammates Villa and Petri to bask in the golden glow at the top of the podium after their three previous Games yielded two silvers and a bronze.
“I think that’s something that’s bonded our team a lot throughout our journey, is getting them the gold,” said US defensive player Jessica Steffens, elder sister of Maggie, referring to Villa and Petri.
“I think we did it, well, obviously for our team, but we did it for them, and for the history of US water polo,” she added.
Spain, making their Olympic debut in the women’s event and cheered on by Prince Felipe of Spain, kept up with the pace in the first quarter, but were overpowered by a stronger US side from the second quarter and failed to look like a threat again.
Steffens hogged the limelight right from the start of the tournament, scoring seven goals in the US’ opening match, to announce herself on the Olympic stage.
“She brought a spark to the team that was needed,” said Villa, 32, who waited 12 years for the gold and won it in what she said would be her final international water polo appearance.
“I let myself smile with about a minute, 30 [seconds] to go,” she added.
Steffens senior praised her sister Maggie, who four years ago was in the stands in Beijing watching her play in the previous Olympics.
“She’s been incredible her whole life, so I don’t think she’s going to be stopping any time soon,” she said.
The US, who drew 9-9 in the group stages with Spain, narrowly avoided an exit earlier in the tournament when a coaching mishap in the semi-finals cost them their lead and sent the match to extra time.
The Spanish team’s rise to the peak of the women’s game and a silver medal has been dramatic.
“One of the things we’ve achieved is, I think we’ve got the respect of the other teams, and we’re going to work hard and we’re going to focus, and in Rio, win a gold medal,” Spain’s Maica Garcia said after the match.
Having not featured in the Games in the 12 years that women’s water polo has been an Olympic event, Spain won the qualification tournament in April and have not looked back, something captain Jennifer Pareja credits to a plan started in 2008.
“We started a four-year project. We brought in a new coach with the emphasis on young players, with this aim of reaching the Olympic Games,” she said.
Spain’s coach Miguel Oca puts the team’s success down to their determination, explaining that it is not to do with funding.
“No we don’t have too much money, water polo in Spain doesn’t have too much money,” he said. “We create a team with very young players and then they’ve been growing and growing and growing, and now this is the result.”