Hungary’s long and storied water polo tradition includes nine Olympic gold medals in the men’s event, five more than any other nation. Hungary also participated the most famous match in the sport, the so-called “Blood in the Water” match against the Soviet Union during the Melbourne Olympics in 1956.
The match took place about a month after Soviet troops crushed a student uprising in Budapest. With Hungary winning by 4-0 in the waning minutes, the Soviet player Valentin Prokopov punched Ervin Zador of Hungary in the right eye. Zador emerged from the pool with blood pouring from his head. Hungary went on to defeat Yugoslavia for the gold medal.
“There is a heartbeat for water polo here and I just love that,” Steffens said.
Coach Denes Kemeny, who guided the Hungarian men to three Olympic championships from 2000 to 2008, joked about Steffens’s untapped potential.
“Maggie’s potential is to get Hungarian citizenship and play for Hungary, that’s my wish,” Kemeny said. “I think she will be three or four times Olympic gold medalist.”
She is the first member of the United States women’s national team to compete in the elite Hungarian league.
“Hopefully, it opens the door for future players to come play here,” she said.
Steffens said she has relished the expat experience, admiring her new city amid strolls along Margaret Bridge and past the grandiose Hungarian Parliament Building. But she faces a language barrier at times and cultural differences both in and out of the pool.
“Luckily, a lot of the girls on my team speak English, but not everyone,” Steffens said. “It’s definitely been tough, but I learned all of the water polo commands right away. It’s your job to go out of your way and connect with the girls.”
Steffens said passionate Hungarian water polo fans and an unrivaled stadium atmosphere were unlike anything she had witnessed in the United States. There are drums and lots of horns at games, and in winter, teams install bubbles over the pools. At one game, she said, she could not hear a thing or talk in the water. “I just remember smiling, thinking, this is so cool,” she said.
Savvy, strong and smart wielding the ball, Steffens set an Olympic record by scoring 21 goals as a teenager at the London Games in 2012. Four years later at the Rio de Janeiro Games, she led her team with 17 goals, as the United States became the first country to win two gold medals since the Olympic debut of women’s water polo in 2000.
United States Coach Adam Krikorian said Steffens was a rare talent and possessed qualities comparable to other sporting legends.
“What makes her better than most, if not everyone, is her vision — her ability to see the whole pool, to make the right decisions with the ball, delivering to the right people at the right time,” Krikorian said. “All the great ones share the similar attributes — Gretzky, Magic Johnson, they’re the best at making everyone around them better.”
Steffens is recovering from a kidney infection that was discovered in late March and forced her to miss a few weeks of training and games. She returned to the pool last month for the European Champions League tournament, where UVSE advanced to the semifinals.
Although she is still not 100 percent physically, Steffens said she believed she could make a worthy contribution in the remaining games. UVSE leads Dunaujvaros, one game to none, in the best-of-five Hungarian League final with Game 2 on Saturday.
“Mentally, I am 100 percent and that’s all that matters,” she said.
In nine contests this season, Steffens is shooting 53 percent, having scored 16 goals off 30 shots.
Steffens is expected to captain the American national team as it seeks a third consecutive Olympic gold medal at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Ten countries — two more than at the Rio Games, evidence of growth in the women’s sport and more gender equity — will be vying for the title.
“She is already a star in our small world,” said Krikorian, Steffens’ national team coach. “With more time, she is going to be a star around the globe.”