US & World

How Maureen O'Toole helped pave the way for women's Olympic water polo

File: Maureen O''Toole #7 of Team USA passes the ball as Gillian Van Den Berg #9 of Team Netherlands tries to block her during the FINA World Cup at the Pan Am Pool in Winnepeg, Canada in May 1999.
File: Maureen O''Toole #7 of Team USA passes the ball as Gillian Van Den Berg #9 of Team Netherlands tries to block her during the FINA World Cup at the Pan Am Pool in Winnepeg, Canada in May 1999.
Todd Warshaw/Getty Images
File: Maureen O''Toole #7 of Team USA passes the ball as Gillian Van Den Berg #9 of Team Netherlands tries to block her during the FINA World Cup at the Pan Am Pool in Winnepeg, Canada in May 1999.
Maureen O''Toole #7 of the USA is looking on from the line up before the 2000 Women's Water Polo Holiday Cup Tournament against the Netherlands at the Los Alamitos Training Center in Los Alamitos, California. USA defeated the Netherlands 11-9.
Donald Miralle/Getty Images


The year was 1900, and the Olympics introduced its first team sport — men's water polo. 

Fast forward 100 years, and women's water polo finally hit the pool at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. For then-competitor Maureen O'Toole, the addition of women's water polo into the games meant coming out of retirement at age 39 after a two-decade career on the women's national team to fulfill Olympic dreams and help Team USA bring home the silver medal.

O'Toole coached both men and women water polo players at Rio Honda College and UC Berkeley in the '90s. Now she coaches the Diablo Alliance Water Polo girls' team, where gold medal-winning Olympians Maggie and Jessica Steffens got their start.

Now she's watching Maggie Steffens go for gold a second time around in the Rio Olympics on a women's team comprised almost entirely of players from California.

KPCC's Nick Roman caught up with O'Toole to talk about how far the sport has come since her days at Wilson High School in Long Beach, when she had to play for the boys' team. The interview has been edited slightly for clarity.

Interview Highlights


Tell me why it took so long to get women's water polo into the Olympics. 

Oh gosh, you know, I think the whole women's gender equity helped that, from Title IX to the men's side, I think, just didn't want to share in the funding, which is very understandable. But from our side, it wasn't adding a new sport, it was adding the women's side of men's water polo. I think that mostly having to share the funding with the men and the women was what held it up for so long.

When you were in high school there wasn't a team, right? 

That's correct. I played on the boy's team in high school. It's definitely come a long way since I was in high school, but that was a long time ago.

How did they accept you when you said, 'I want to play this sport, and I'm going to be on this team?' 

Very much so. Long Beach Wilson [High School] is a powerhouse in water polo. I had great coaches, so I feel I was really lucky to have the opportunity I had to play at Long Beach Wilson.

I'm assuming that now since you're a coach, you've tried to hold onto those coaches' qualities.

Oh yeah, for sure. Seeing the girls have the opportunity that they have now, I’m really into teaching the fundamentals of water polo, because I think that even at the beginning stages you really need that, and even at the Olympic level.

Who should we watch for in water polo when it comes to the games in Rio? 

I think the U.S. is definitely the favorite — they've won everything in the past three years — but it's the Olympics, you never know. Australia's super strong. Hungary's tough. Spain and Italy are super tough. I believe it will be the U.S. and Australia in the gold-medal match.

The U.S. women's water polo team defeated Spain in the preliminaries 11-4 Tuesday, and will face off with China on Thursday. To follow the team's Olympic journey, check the Rio Games' schedule.