Maggie Steffens is not new to the Olympics, and neither is Ben Hallock

However, Steffens has been to more Olympic Games. Now at age 30, she is one of the veterans on the U.S. women’s water polo team – and some of the younger players even refer to her as “mama.” 

“It’s funny because I’m not that way,” Steffens said. “I’m very energetic, but a mama in the sense of experience and just helping guide our team in the right direction, sharing experiences and figuring out how do you guide, teach and empower while also creating the shape for people to grow and figure out who they are.”

Steffens has plenty of experience to share with the team. 

She played with the squad during the 2012, 2016 and 2020 Games. In all of those tournaments, the U.S. won gold. It’s no surprise why she became captain of the team in 2019 after proving she’s a game changer, including when she tied the record for most goals in an Olympic water polo tournament with 21 at the London Games. 

The path to greatness has taken a physical toll on Steffens, and one that she said hit her the hardest after the Tokyo Olympics. 

“I’ve dealt with a lot of injuries and this has been my most resilient journey that I’ve had to go through and mentally as well,” she said. “I’ve gotten shoulder surgery after Tokyo and because of that, I’m very focused on just one [Olympic tournament] at a time.”

The opportunity to continue to make the U.S. a powerhouse in women’s water polo is what continues to drive Steffens to stay in the pool. That’s what her approach will be as captain for the team heading into the Paris Olympics. 

“If you have pressure [on your team], that means you’re doing something right,” Steffens said. “We can turn pressure to become diamonds. We put the team in challenging situations to make us nervous in training and competitions. That’s something that we’ve been doing since I first joined the team that had no pressure and has never won a gold medal.”

As for Hallock, this summer will be his first as captain of the men’s team.

He has been with the team since the 2016 Rio Olympics but admits he’s still learning what it’s like to be a leader on the team. 

“In Rio, I was 18 years old and it was almost a survival experience within the team, I wasn’t looking out for anyone else but just trying to do my job to the best of my ability,” Hallock said. “The experience in Rio was not incredible, and Tokyo was a whole different Olympic experience itself. Now being captain, I’m bringing those experiences, some of the good ones and a lot of the tough ones, to the team. I think it’s good if I can share those moments with the other guys so that they don’t have to go through them themselves.” 

Hallock said he will continue to treat every Olympic tournament as a stepping stone to help him become a better leader, but he’s happy with his approach heading into Paris. 

Another thing that he finds unique is how at age 26, he’s at a stage in his career where he’s continuing to learn from others who have been in the game longer than him while also trying to lead a younger U.S. team to a medal this summer. 

Hallock currently plays for Pro Recco in the Italian professional water polo league. He said being part of the club has helped him become a better leader for the U.S.

“I was the youngest guy on the team [for my European club] up until this year, but I’ve been playing with grown men with families and learning what it’s like to be a true professional,” Hallock said. “On my team, there’s actually three captains with natural instincts that I’m with every day. They have a lot more experience than me and have done a lot more in their careers than I have. It’s cool to learn from them, how they carry themselves and lead by example.”

The two-time Olympian said he takes everything he learns playing overseas back to the national team and provides a scouting notebook for his teammates to study. 

Facing the competition

The leadership approach of putting yourself in difficult situations is something Steffens is implementing within her squad due to the U.S. being the team to beat in the sport for quite some time. She also admits with the international playing field becoming more level, the team must be prepared for any kind of adversity throughout the tournament. 

“We’ve been really fortunate in our success and earned that through the way that we play and train, but this Olympics will probably be the most competitive since 2012,” she said. “Now I feel like on any given game, we don’t know what the result is going to be. Every team is taking it to the next level and that means we have to as well. That’s what we’ve been doing and we’re really excited about that.”

The U.S. women’s team won the 2024 World Aquatics Championship title after beating Hungary in the final 8-7. The two knockout games prior to the final also resulted in close contests. To Steffens, the U.S. has already gotten a preview of how competitive the competition will be in Paris. 

As for Hallock and the men’s team, they were eliminated in the first round of the knockout stages after a 13-12 loss against Italy. 

Hallock said he knows it's a younger U.S. team compared to recent Olympic outings, but the presence of players on the team playing for European teams can help them make a deep run in the tournament. 

“It’s valuable for the other guys who played in different leagues to know our opponents,” he said. “One of my teammates plays in Greece, another plays in Spain. We all kind of come together and discuss what we learned.”

The first game at the Paris Olympics for the U.S. men will be against Italy, a game that Hallock is excited for. He also mentioned some of the teams he hopes the U.S. will avoid until the later rounds are Greece, Hungary, Montenegro and Serbia. 

Embracing leadership

Steffens and Hallock expressed their excitement to play at the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics. Before either can lead their team to that tournament, they are embracing their roles as captains this summer. 

“I always feel like I’m playing for more than myself,” Steffens said. “Every day you have an opportunity to represent something bigger than yourself and that carries weight. I’ve taken that concept with me everywhere I go. Having been here for a long time, your perspective changes and you’re just so grateful to represent Team USA and give it your best.”

“I’m looking forward to having my family in Paris, especially after the absence in Tokyo, and also for my teammates whose first Olympic Games were in Tokyo and now they will have everyone there in Paris,” Hallock said. “I’m just dreaming about the moment and having the privilege to have your team standing on the podium.”