Over the last decade, water polo has been one of the fastest growing sports in the United States. Data from 2016 shows that USA Water Polo already had almost 50.000 members nationwide and those numbers are only growing to this day. Many outstanding characters have contributed to the growth and success of our sport, and a name that unarguably deserves a mention is Carlos Steffens.
Carlos is the father of USA National Team athletes Jessica and Maggie Steffens. But before raising Olympic champions he had a fair share of water polo success himself. Carlos was born in Puerto Rico where he started out as a swimmer. The transition to water polo happened when he saw his first water polo game at the age of 10. After that, there was no going back. With his club team (Casino de Puerto Rico), he won several national titles and he went on to play for the Puerto Rican National Team before his big move to compete in the NCAA.
Showcasing his talent while representing Puerto Rico led to a full athletic scholarship at the University of California, Berkley led by the legendary coach, Pete Cutino. Later Steffens received an invitation to play for team USA.
Water polo is water polo everywhere, but the style of play and the rules may vary in the different countries. Carlos remembers this very well.
“My freshman year  was complex because in the NCAA rules were very different to the FINA international rules. It got me into a lot of trouble; it was really hard to reboot and start again. It was a tough freshman year.” Plus, US water polo was already at a higher level in all aspects of the game. “Much higher level. And I’ll tell you one thing that was very different for me. When they started doing sprints or 200s… whoo! I quickly realized I needed to get a lot faster” he laughed.
After the challenges of freshman year, Carlos came back as a much stronger player physically and mentally. “I went home for a little bit for the summer and played in some international games. I came back and sophomore year I had by then adjusted. I got a little stronger, I got a little faster. We won NCAAs at Brown University that year.”
Nowadays, there are not many Division I teams without any international players on their squad however, this was not always the case. “I was one of the few imports. I have a very good friend who played for Stanford, who told me after I graduated that ‘You were the brown guy. The Puerto Rican brown guy. The bad guy,'” remembered Steffens.
‘It took a little bit to gain the respect from the referees, the coaches, etc. I was very fortunate that Pete Cutino helped me a lot. One of my best memories is from a tournament. Somebody fouled me really hard in a particular place. There was a time out and I saw the referees turn around. The player that had just hit me started swimming towards me and I just went, whack!” Steffens recalled, demonstrating by hitting his hand with his fist. “And oh my God, that was no good.”
‘And then we went for pizza afterwards. [Cutino] grabbed me and said ‘Carlos!’ And I said, ‘oh my God, I am being sent back to Puerto Rico, I really blew it.’ But he said ‘We need you in the water. You are color skinned, you are Puerto Rican, everybody is watching you. Nobody saw you and by the way, that was the best punch I’ve ever seen but you cannot do that,’ so he helped me a lot.”
His hard work and perseverance paid off; Carlos finished his NCAA career with a national championship title and as a three-time All-American. When asked about his decision on ending his water polo career shortly after graduating from college he took a turn to the “what if” memory lane, but quickly bounced back to the facts.
“There were financial pressures for me. I’d look at myself in the mirror and said, ‘What are you going to do with the diploma?’ You know, there was no financial aid for the US team back then. And I made the decision to make a living. I was offered a job in San Francisco in an import-export business. I owed money because I needed a loan.”
What was normal and affordable for Carlos’s teammates was not always as accessible for the ‘brown guy.’ “I felt that everyone had so much money in California. They would go out to dinner with a beer, they did a lot of things. I knew I had to keep up; I had loans to pay and, in the background, I thought to myself ‘What if I am the last guy [not to make the team]?'”
“I got to move on to a new life and make a living. I had an amazing life. I know I made the good decision.”
“By the way, I was already going out with my wife. We were already thinking, okay, maybe we should get married and start a family and you know, the end was fantastic… I have an amazing wife, a miracle wife, who was an expert giving birth to amazing, wonderful players and amazing kids.”
Carlos belongs to the generation of water polo players who truly played for the love of the sport over any sort of compensation. The dream of becoming an Olympian was already on the table during his era but having fun and enjoying the game was the number one priority. To this day, his passion for the sport of water polo is unmatchable, his stories are inspirational, and his spirit is uplifting. If you need a good water polo talk, Carlos Steffens is your guy!