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The Rush: Johnson and Steffens on the rigors of water polo, breaking barriers and making Olympic history

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The U.S. water polo team made history at the 2020 Tokyo Games, taking home a third consecutive Olympic gold medal. Stars Ashleigh Johnson and Maggie Steffens join The Rush, revealing what makes their sport the hardest in the world and what it’s like to smash glass ceilings and make history in the process. Plus, how would Johnson fare keeping goal in hockey and soccer? She’s willing to find out!

Video Transcript

LIZ LOZA: Water polo is so hard, but I want people to understand exactly how hard it is. Can you talk about the rigors of being in the pool and treading water for as long as you do?

ASHLEIGH JOHNSON: I mean, it's incredibly difficult. It's 6 and 1/2 hours a day we train most days of the week. And we're lifting, we're running, we're in the pool swimming, we're game planning, we watch a lot of video. We do a lot of like, specific practice and skill work.

There's just a lot of different things that go into making us the team that we are physically. And then there's relationship building-- like, you're working with 12 other athletes on a team of 13 to make something like an Olympic gold medal happen.

LIZ LOZA: I'm here with Ii history-making women, Goalkeeper Ashleigh Johnson and Captain Maggie Steffens of Team USA Water Polo. Welcome to "The Rush," ladies.

ASHLEIGH JOHNSON: Thank you for having us. We're so happy to be here.

LIZ LOZA: This was the US women's third consecutive Olympic gold medal. Maggie, how sweet was that three-peat?

MAGGIE STEFFENS: I think hearing the word three-peat or three gold medals hasn't really like sunk in to what this year has been. Our team has been so focused on just this Olympics, one moment at a time, especially with the pandemic and COVID. That was kind of our mantra was, enjoy the moment as much as possible.

And I bet in like a month or two, all of a sudden I'm going to wake up and be like, wow.

LIZ LOZA: Let's talk about your team, because every single member went to either Stanford, UCLA, or USC except for you, Ashleigh. Is water polo the only space where you can be considered an outsider for graduating from, oh, Princeton?

ASHLEIGH JOHNSON: I mean, water polo is a California sport. That's actually changing.

MAGGIE STEFFENS: Yeah.

ASHLEIGH JOHNSON: Like, water polo's spreading throughout the US. There's a lot of talent in a lot of places. So I'm really happy to be here as one of the first. But I'm definitely not going to be the last.

And if you look at our team, like, you look at our game, it takes a lot of intelligence, it takes a lot of power, it takes a lot of just prowess as an athlete and focus. And the schools that we go to, the places we come from, the people we come from and our community reflects that.

LIZ LOZA: Maggie, as the top female goal scorer in Olympics water polo history and Ashleigh as the first African-American woman to make an Olympics water polo team, what's it like to be barrier breakers?

MAGGIE STEFFENS: What's cool about the platform we've been given and with the sport of water polo in and of itself is you're able to be confident in your own skin. What your body can bring, no matter what you look like, no matter where you're from, and continue to push those barriers if you want to. And I am proud though, that it is a woman from the US showing that there is more opportunity, whether it's with sponsorships or playing professionally or breaking barriers, you know, breaking records.

Whatever it is to show young girls and young boys, hey, here's the door, and we're blasting through it to show you you can do the same.

ASHLEIGH JOHNSON: Maggie's proud that it's a woman who is breaking all of these barriers, that we're women breaking all these barriers. But I'm especially proud that it's Maggie, specifically, and my teammate. Women are strong, women are here, and we're here to stay and we're going to do really well.

MAGGIE STEFFENS: And I guarantee, there's a bunch of kids out there who have seen Ashleigh play and now they're saying-- they never thought it was possible. But now, they say, hey, look at her. Maybe I can be like Ashleigh Johnson. I just got the chills, because it's so true.

LIZ LOZA: Yeah. Well, to that end, that is a perfect segue, because I have a question just for Ashleigh. Ashleigh, you're an absolute ball stopper in net. So have you ever tried your hand at soccer or hockey? Do you think you'd be-- I think you'd be great at anything, but maybe one of those two sports?

ASHLEIGH JOHNSON: I haven't yet, but I would be so down if one of those goalies wants to show me the ropes. I've watched hockey and soccer extensively. And I'm always amazed at how a soccer goalie covers that much space in the cage.

And like, the hockey goalie, like the reactions. That puck is so small, I don't get it. But yeah, I'd be so down. If anyone playing hockey is watching, I'm open and willing to come to a practice.

LIZ LOZA: Multi-time Olympic gold medalist Maggie Steffens and Ashleigh Johnson. It has been so awesome having you on "The Rush." Thank you so much.

MAGGIE STEFFENS: Thanks.

ASHLEIGH JOHNSON: Thanks for having us.

MAGGIE STEFFENS: Thanks for having us.

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