RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Maggie Steffens and the U.S. women’s water polo team stood on the top step of the podium and belted out the national anthem through a mixture of smiles and tears.
Italy and Russia stood on each side of the Americans, and they might as well have been miles away.
The dominant U.S. women’s teams in gymnastics, basketball and swimming have some company. The women’s water polo team, hailing almost exclusively from California, beat Italy 12-5 on Friday for its second straight gold medal, and there are signs it could replicate the sustained success of some of America’s most famous Olympic juggernauts.
“We could,” goaltender Ashleigh Johnson said. “But some of our girls aren’t coming back, and they already know that. It won’t be the same team. This team will never be the same team again.”
The U.S. closed its schedule with 22 straight wins, rolling through its six games in Rio by a combined score of 73-32. It currently holds each of the major crowns in women’s water polo, adding a second Olympic gold to its world championship, World Cup and World League Super Final titles.
The ease with which it dispatched with the eight-team field in Rio — the Americans held the lead after 23 of their 24 quarters and trailed for a total of 44 seconds — made a case for this team being the best ever assembled in the sport.
“I think you could make a strong argument,” coach Adam Krikorian said. “That 2012 team in the last games I love to death, they were a gritty, hard-nosed, tough crew, but this team has done some special things.”
Said Italy coach Fabio Conti: “USA is, in this moment, a team of another universe.”
While the 2012 gold medalists were a veteran crew, the U.S. had nine newcomers this year, including teenagers Maddie Musselman and sisters Makenzie and Aria Fischer. Musselman scored 12 goals and made the all-tournament team, and Makenzie Fischer scored seven times.
Johnson, the first black woman to play water polo for the United States in the Olympics, turns 22 next month. Steffens, the MVP of the last two games, is just 23 and sounded ready to sign up for Tokyo right away.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next four years,” Steffens said, “but this is too incredible, incredible of an opportunity to call yourself an Olympian with a team, a real team, not just people that are thrown together, but a team that has grown together, to pass up again. So I for sure would love to be back in this situation in four years.”
The big question is the status of Krikorian, who said he wasn’t sure if he would continue with the national team. Krikorian’s brother, Blake, died right before the start of the Olympics, starting an emotional time for the former UCLA coach, culminating with the victory in the final.
Krikorian is beloved by his players, who rallied to his side when he returned to Rio after going home to spend time with his family, and his departure could alter the trajectory of the program.
“I love coaching. I love this team,” Krikorian said. “I love having an impact on young people. I love leading. That doesn’t mean that this is what I’m going to do the rest of my life. I think I need to figure that out. I think it’s always good to keep your options open and see what else is out there.”