Maggie Steffens and the United States have dominated women’s water polo since the country won its first gold medal in the sport at the 2012 London Olympics.
The world is pushing back at the Tokyo Games, and it remains to be seen how Steffens and company respond.
The Americans were handed their first loss at the Olympics since 2008 when they fell 10-9 to Rebecca Parkes and Hungary in group play on Wednesday. The team had been 19-0 this year, including five victories over Hungary by a combined 66-37 score.
“The game just doesn’t know who you are. The game doesn’t know where you come from,” US goaltender Ashleigh Johnson said. “So every time you need to be ready. As the US team, as the Hungarian team, you need to be ready for each team to bring their best, and Hungary brought their best today.”
The United States were big favorites to win their third straight gold medal coming into Tokyo, but they were pushed hard by China during a rugged 12-7 victory Monday. Steffens had her nose broken by an inadvertent elbow, and the captain sported a black eye and a small bandage during the match against Hungary.
Even with the loss, the Americans remain in good position to advance to the knockout round. The team face the ROC on Friday.
“For us, we’re fortunate that this is just tournament one,” said Steffens, the double Olympic gold medalist and two-time Fina player of the year from California. “This is bracket play, and so we’re going to have a lot to work on, a lot to get better if we want to be the team we want to be at the end of this, for sure.”
Hungary trailed 9-8 with 2:28 left, but captain Rita Keszthelyi scored from deep and Parkes got the game-winner when she connected on a beautiful no-look goal with 45 seconds left. Parkes finished with a team-high three goals.
The US had the ball in the final seconds, but they turned it over.
It was the United States’ first loss at the Olympics since the 2008 final against the Netherlands. They had a draw in London, but went 6-0 on the way to the title in Rio de Janeiro.
The US women’s water polo team have been described as the world’s most dominant team in any sport. Since Steffens joined the team, they have won every major tournament they have entered, including two straight Olympic golds, three straight world titles, three straight World Cup titles and and six straight World League titles.
They are attempting to become the third nation to win three straight Olympic water polo titles after the Hungarian men (2000-08) and British men (1900-20).