How the USA women's water polo team is training for its third straight Olympic gold medal

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  • USA women's water polo won gold at the 2012 London and 2016 Rio Olympics.
  • Because of the pandemic, the defending champs haven't played a real game in over a year.
  • We spent a week with captain Maggie Steffens to see how the team's training to defend gold after a long hiatus.

Following is a transcription of the video:

Narrator: In 2012 and 2016, USA women's water polo won gold at the Olympics. Heading into Tokyo 2020, they were ready to do it again. But then the Olympic games were postponed. For over a year, the best team in the world had no one to play.

Maggie Steffens: I almost think of it as a grieving period. We had been thinking of this one thing, and it had been taken away from us.

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Narrator: That's team captain and two-time gold medalist Maggie Steffens. This year, she's helped keep the team together and in shape.

Adam Krikorian: Below the water is going to be very physical, a lot of grabbing, kicking, punching that you don't necessarily see.

Maggie: You have to be able to do all this in the weight room, jump in the pool, swim up and down, wrestle with somebody, not have any ground, and shoot a ball past the best goalie in the world.

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Adam: Cover some ground and move forward.

Narrator: We spent a week with the Olympic water polo team to see how it's training to defend gold.

Maggie: We train six days a week, and we train each day for about six and a half to seven hours. And Sundays are our one off day.

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We get up anywhere probably between 5:30 and 6. I think the secret to water polo is legs, deadlifts, back squats, RDLs, lunges. We're constantly throwing the ball, catching the ball, swimming, pulling. So we really need to develop our shoulders. We want to get strong. We want to be able to endure the physical demands you need for water polo.

This is where the magic happens. We spent hours here to get ready for Tokyo.

Narrator: In the morning, the women swim laps and do drill work.

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Maggie: Water polo is a lot of cardio. We're always, always, always working.

Adam: Two more laps before we partner up.

Narrator: During practice, the team focuses on fundamentals like the egg beater.

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Maggie: Or treading water. This is our standing, the base foundation of our sport. It allows us to stay above water and play this game.

Adam: The emphasis this week is on defense. So you'll see a lot of defensive drills today.

They're going to release back to that same spot. As they're releasing, I'm trying to get up in the lane.

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Now we're in maybe my favorite portion of practice, which is passing. If you can't pass, you can't play.

Maggie: We're passing in pairs, which makes it a lot harder because every time you pass, you gotta be able to rejuvenate your body, receive the ball and keep doing it. This is our base position for holding a water polo ball. She can use her core, her legs and her shoulders to execute a pass a shot.

Adam: Being able to pass the ball accurately and being able to elevate yourself out of the water takes a tremendous amount of leg strength. And one of the things that we do in order to improve that leg strength is use these weighted belts. So these are probably about 9 pounds. After they're clipped on, they end up doing anywhere from 20 to 30, sometimes 40 minutes of passing drills.

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Right after you pass, you've got to get back to those strokes and then be ready to receive the next ball.

Maggie: We swim head up so you can see the ball, see the players, see the game, and she's ready to execute her next play. This is what we call our dribbling. So we put the ball in front of our face and we use our elbows and our strokes to almost create a channel for the ball to float. You're using every single muscle in your body. You can even see the concentration and focus in her face.

Narrator: At another station, the players are strapped into bands.

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Maggie: That band is attached to the wall, and they're going to be pulling the band as far as they can using all of their strength and actually going against the people on the other side. So it's also kind of a fun competition to see who's stronger.

So if you just practice shooting and you feel great, that's not really preparing yourself for a high intensity moment in a game. So we incorporate conditioning drills, like using the bands to get ourselves tired, to practice while we're tired and then go and shoot and try to be intelligent, smart, and execute. You have to be able to get past that breaking point. Mentally, you have to be able to visualize yourself and say, okay, I can do this no matter how tired I am, no matter how my body feels. No matter my doubt.

Narrator: Next, athletes have time to rest. Maggie heads to treatment for a shoulder injury.

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Larnie Boquiren: Common injuries that we see for water polo players is a lot of shoulders, a lot of hips, necks, fingers, low back. Like any overhead athlete, repetitive movement in their shooting and with swimming plays a great toll on their body.

Adam: We always begin afternoon practice with a team meeting.

Maggie: In the afternoons, we tend to do a lot more gameplay, some sort of scrimmage. They'll be playing for about 45 minutes. It's pretty nonstop, super physical, lots of up and down. And it's going to be a battle.

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Adam: Get up on your legs quickly. [whistle blowing]

Adam: 2-0.

Adam: Look. Make sure there's eye contact before you pass it.

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Adam: 7-5. Go.

Maggie: You can see it getting a bit heated, very competitive. So underwater, the ref doesn't see, but somebody might have a hold of my suit. I mean you can see scratches, which is part of the game.

Maddie Musselman: I think that competition is really a huge part of our sport. Being able to play all these different styles and the different teams that are going to be playing at the Olympics.

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Adam: We would typically play anywhere from 40 to 45 games in the calendar year leading up to an Olympic Games.

Narrator: But with travel banned and competitions canceled ...

Adam: This year, we've played zero. We haven't played a game in a year and a half.

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Maggie: You can never really replace a game. During a game, you are juggling so many thoughts in your mind. You're thinking about the other team. You're thinking about maybe the shot you just missed. It moves so quick. A scrimmage is the closest thing we can get to it.

Stephania Haralabidis: It's a really hard thing because we have to be super physical with each other. And we're friends, we're teammates, we're a family, but when we're in the water, we're playing against each other. It's super physical and that's how it's supposed to be for us to win.

Maggie: I think the challenges that come with being a water polo player at this level is just the demand -- the demand on your body. But hopefully soon we'll all be on the same side. So we won't be facing each other as teammates, but we'll be a team facing another country, another opponent. And then I'm going to know exactly what Paige Hauschild wants. Rachel Fattal knows me. She knows my weaknesses and can kind of supplement me there. She knows my strengths and exactly where I want the ball.

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Adam: The consecutive wins certainly put a target on our back. Anytime you have success, the target gets a little bigger, and then you add the three letters USA, and that'll do it. But we wouldn't want it any other way. That brings the best out of us as well.

Maggie: I think if COVID has taught us one thing is that we don't know what's going to happen. Hopefully I'm healthy enough and still a good enough player to continue playing this sport. But for now, I'm focused on Tokyo. Hopefully do well at the Olympics and hopefully bring home the gold from the Olympics.

Producer: Which teams are you most worried about?

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Maddie: I'm not worried about anyone.

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