Carlos Steffens, Travelin’ Water Polo Man: From San Juan to Cal-Berkeley to the Olympics

Mention of the name “Steffens” brings to mind Maggie Steffens, who—with two Olympic golds and three NCAA titles—is arguably one of the greatest Americans to ever play water polo. Or Jessica, a two-time Team USA Olympian who in 2012 claimed gold with her sister in London.

But the patriarch of the Steffens clan is father Carlos; in 1976 he arrived in the United States for a collegiate career at Cal-Berkeley under legendary coach Pete Cutino. An NCAA champion in 1977, the elder Steffens was a three-time All-American—and such a force for Cal that he earned grudging respect from Dante Dettamanti. The eight-time NCAA-winning coach with Stanford, including the 1978 title over Steffens and the Golden Bears in triple overtime, threw a rare bouquet of praise.

“That guy was so tough, boy I tell you,” Dettamanti said recently to Steve Carrera in a podcast. “He was tough in every aspect of the game—defense, offense. He could play any position.”

Before he was a star in Berkeley, Steffens was a legend in his homeland of Puerto Rico, starting in 1970 with the Casino de Puerto Rico club in San Juan.

Known affectionately as “Kaki,” Steffens is a member of the greatest generation of polo players in the island’s history. In a recent interview with Water Polo Planet, he spoke about his journey to the mainland for polo, the ups and downs of the sport in his Puerto Rico, his children’s success, and how a series of chance encounters with influential Americans help launch a polo dynasty.

– When did you begin playing water polo?

I was 10 years and a swimmer for a small club. There was a tournament in Puerto Rico in 1969 when the New York Athletic Club came during Christmas. I saw that and liked it.

Water polo in Puerto Rico for little kids was just beginning. We didn’t have cages or goals. We would put out wood chairs with a piece of wood, and shoot in between the chairs. I was a tall lanky guy, so I was a goalie. But I didn’t like people shooting the ball at me! I’d rather shoot the ball at [someone else].

We started at 10 but we really didn’t start playing in a league until 11. Our first league game, there was a big storm in San Juan and our parents told us we couldn’t play. There was a team from the other side of the island from two and a half hours away and they showed up.

We lost our first game by forfeit because we didn’t show. So our coach decided [that] we were going to cancel the whole year of the league. It was the right move because he knew we weren’t ready. We had another year, and this club we played for, we won every championship— except for one year—from 12 to 18 years old.

– What was the name of the club team?

Casino de Puerto Rico. It was an old, fantastic club which had basketball, volleyball—you played pool, you played chess or ping pong. You showed up in the morning and you wouldn’t leave until night. And it also had a little swimming pool.

That club that was right next to the beach, it taught kids how to play all sorts of sports.

– Who was your coach at that time?

Fernando Salabarría. He never played water polo—he learned it himself.

The kings of water polo were from a club called Condado. A lot of the teams in Puerto Rico back then were from the hotels. There were not that many pools. There was a Caribe Hilton club. And Navy and Army clubs. It was a different world from today.

The coach who was winning a lot was Harry Hauck. He was from Michigan and had a little more experience. My coach was also my swimming coach. [Salabarría] grabbed a group of guys—on that team there was Jorge Machicote—like a brother of mine—Mike Meres, and a number of others. Those two ended up in Pittsburgh.

[Jorge Machicote, Puerto Rican and Pitt Water Polo Player: Not a Fighter But I Will Drown You in the Pool]

Later on, at age 15, Butch Silva and Luis Toro joined our team. The roots of this team were Jorge, Mike, myself and a few others that started at 10, 11 years old.

– Is this the core of what became the Puerto Rican national team?

There used to be the Central American Games for the age group for water polo—12 and under, 13, 15, 17. I think [it still exists], but not as big. If you want to call that the national team, yes, a lot of our team members were part of the age group national team from 1970, when we participated in Havana.

That was incredible and opened my eyes up— that’s the beauty of water polo.

We lost, not by much, when there was a stadium full of propaganda. I’m not too sure the [Cuban] goalie was 12 years old because he could touch both sides of a smaller cage.

That core group, and a few others a couple of years older, was really good. This happens in all sports; there’s a cycle of good talent or teammates, one that happens every five years. And that core was part of what later became the national team.

Machicote, he was part of the national team—he was an excellent player from a kid all the way to the higher levels. Meres was on the age group national team but did not make the senior national team.

Papo Ruiz, was a good water polo player, but I don’t think he ever made the age group national team. Silva was amazing—unfortunately he’s passed away. He was a strong bull! An amazing swimmer who switched to water polo. Yes, he made the national team.  Toro was a left-hander—he’s a dentist today. He was a good swimmer and became part of the national age-group team and might have made a few open national teams.

– What was instrumental in you and your teammates’ development?

There’s always someone in this sport that sets the example. They help—and that’s why our group developed. I was looking up Miguel Rivera today. He’s older than me—I’m 61 soon to be 62, he must be 70.  I was 10 and he was 20.  From that group—a group that Harry Hauck brought in—there was a guy by the name of Carlos Gonzales. He’s probably 66 today—five years older than me. His father really helped. Somehow, San Jose State came to compete in a Christmas Invitational against New York Athletic Club and there was another junior college—Orange Coast College.  We found a way to recruit the San Jose State coach, Lee Walton, who just passed away.  Walton coached one of the greatest goalies from the national team, and a number of great coaches who loved the sport, like Bruce Watson, Eddie Samuels, and others. He fell in love with Puerto Rico and came to consult on the island.  To me, [it was] Lee Walton who raised the quality of water polo in Puerto Rico. Hauck was a fantastic coach and a pioneer. Walton came in ’72, ’73. He noticed a special group and decided—fortunately for me and a few of the younger players—to sacrifice the older players and bring a new era of water polo. He gave a group of five to six of us that were 14 to 16 an opportunity to play for the senior, or open 1974 Central American Games, which were in the Dominican Republic.

– Who else was on that team?

Miguel Rivera and a few others were our leaders. This was his last competition. Jorge Machicote. Carlos Gonzalez. Rafael Gonzalez, his younger brother. Manfredo Lespier. I think those were the four younger players who came into the group that kept building over time.

[Miguel Rivera and the Fantastic, Unbelievable and True Story of Pitt Water Polo and Puerto Rico]

In 1974 we lost to Cuba 15-0. Cuba was already at a very high level—they were in the top six or eight in the world—and we were rebooting the program.  From there starts a revolution of Carlos Gonzalez—a pioneer who went to San Jose State. It’s 1974 that he went. He comes back and doing things I’ve never seen in Puerto Rico, such as skipping the ball. Oh my God, that was such a revolutionary thing. He had lost a bunch of weight and was in shape.  From there, some people start going to Pittsburgh. Raffi, Carlos Gonzalez’s brother, goes to high school in California—and plays water polo at Fremont High.

– You got a chance to go to California

The summer of 1975, in preparation for the Pan American Games in Mexico City, Walton, and the coach for Stanford, Art Lambert—who also had gone to Puerto Rico—invited us to Stanford to train for six or eight weeks.  After we landed in San Francisco, our coach said: Today we have a scrimmage against Stanford.  We come to the pool, get changed, and start playing a scrimmage against the team that invited us to spend a whole summer there. The game lasted maybe 15 minutes—with warm-ups. A brawl started between Stanford and the Puerto Rican team—with the coaches screaming: Stop! Stop! Stop!  That was the beginning of a very fun, hard-working water polo experience in California. We were training three times a day in different parts of California. Then and there our eyes were opening that this place—the United States—could be fun.

The experience, it was fantastic. I will never forget the last tournament of the year in Newport Beach. It was the Olympic tryouts—the old nationals. The Nationals in the United States were—and I hope we go back [to this] one day—where all the best teams would show up. They were the best of the best. Nobody was playing in Europe.  Back then, every coach from college had a program. If you went to UCLA, you played for UCLA in the summer and you were basically a UCLA player for the rest of your life—age group and college. And there was UCLA “A,” “B,” “C” and so forth. Same if you went to Stanford or Cal.  That’s lost. Too many players are overseas or they play with the national team or don’t show up.

We were able to watch the very best, water polo we had ever seen. One of the last games we got to play Stanford “B.” They had beaten us all summer long. And we somehow beat them!

We came in fifth place, which is a big accomplishment, and then went to the Pan American Games. It was October of my senior year. After one of the games, Pete Cutino comes to me and said: I’m Pete Cutino, here’s my card. We would like to offer you a full-ride [to Cal-Berkeley].  It sounded interesting [but] I had no money to even think [about going] to California.  I said: Thank you very much. He asked me a few questions—my English was okay, but I was not fluent. He talked to other players. I think [Ted] Newland did the same thing with Manfredo Lespier. I think we were the two guys they really [spoke with].

[Passages: Ted Newland, Coach Emeritus of UC Irvine Men’s Water Polo, Passes Away at 91]

I came back to my school in San Juan, Puerto Rico. My English teacher was from Fresno. And I say look, I’ve been offered a scholarship from UC-Berkeley in California. I really didn’t know how special this was—and how fortunate I had been.  She said: You know, this is a five-star school. I don’t think you have the grades to go there.  [I replied]: This is what they’re saying. Help me out! How do I write a letter?   I ended up at Cal. Manfredo Lespier ended up at UC Irvine. He made a great career for himself in Irvine. I made a great career at Cal.

– You got on a plane and went to Berkeley for polo?

It was very tough for me. My economic situation was hard. Yes, it was a full ride, but there were a lot of expenses to cover. I did a lot of work on the side, on top of the scholarship. My first year was extremely complex.  But, I had great teammates. It happens that one of my brothers-in-law today, was recruiting me at the Pan American Games in 1975—his name is Mike Loughlin. He became the chief financial risk officer for Wells Fargo. He sat next to me on a bus ride from the Pan American pool to the dorms and talked to me about Cal.

He helped me a bit, but I was alone. I was the only Puerto Rican there. Back then, foreigners were not that common coming to play at universities. There was a Brazilian guy at UCLA and a Hungarian guy at Cal. But it’s not what you see today.  It was a different world. People were going out to dinner and I was: How am I gonna do that?! But I was fortunate to be around a good group of people. My social skills helped me go through school.  UC Berkeley had won three NCAAs in a row [1973-75], but we didn’t do that well [when I first got there]. We didn’t even qualify for the 1976 NCAAs. That was quite depressing.  Actually, Pitt went in 1976—a bunch of my old friends! Next year that same Cal team, with one very important player, Kevin Robertson, won NCAAs. And were contenders the next two years.

Robertson had been under the wings of the program of NIMA [Newport-Irvine-Mesa Association]—remember, all colleges had their own programs and you had to stay with that group. And this kid, who at one point was the best player in the world, he went to Cal—not Irvine.  Coach Newland was very expressive of his discomfort of his baby coming to play for Cal—a tremendous opponent of Irvine.  Kevin comes in 1977. We come play at Brown University and win the national championship. When you get that flavor of winning and being the best—that is something very special for the rest of your life.

– Like with Carlos Gonzalez at San Jose State, other Puerto Ricans followed you to California.

Another Puerto guy—Raffi Gonzalez, Carlos Gonzalez’s brother who had played for D’Anza Junior College, and had gone to Fremont High School—he joins me at Cal.  Then, a series of other players from Puerto Rico start coming to California. They see me come back—as I saw Carlos—new, improved. Because, like everything in life, competition is what makes you better.  I graduate from Cal. I played in the 1979 Pan American Games that was in Puerto Rico, while I was at Cal. That was a tremendous experience. It was our year for Puerto Rico to do well.  Unfortunately, we had no budget. We all stayed in a small house in San Jose—we went out and bought some foam mattresses and trained together for 6 weeks prior to the ’79 Games.

Pretty much the whole team was either playing in college or were older players who had played in college.  We had a tremendous goalie—he was about 6-7. I don’t even want to mention his name because I don’t think he deserves it! 10 days prior to flying back to Puerto Rico—we had done really well in scrimmages against the USA in Long Beach—he requested to get paid or he wouldn’t go.  That was crazy. Looking back, it was not much but it was huge for us. We couldn’t pay for it.  He decided not to come. This was a depressing situation for the team. We participated with a “B” goalie; he was a much lower level.  We tied Brazil, we tied Mexico. We tied to Canada. We lost against Cuba by a lot, and because of that we ended up tied in third place with Canada. Which is a much bigger country than Puerto Rico. Because of goals-against average we did not win a bronze—which would have been a fantastic result.

– Then you return to the mainland.

I go back to Cal for my senior year and started going out with Peggy Schnugg—my wife—which was a miracle! There were the Russian Olympics, and the U.S. can’t go, but the U.S. Olympic team approaches me and says: Carlos, we’d like you to come to play for the United States. We’ve seen you play; you don’t need to go through the system, you’ll make the team.  I trained with that USA team for about a year and a half. It was a time when I was trying to figure out life—was I going back to Puerto Rico, was I going to stay in the United States? I remember walking up in Kevin Robertson’s parent’s house and [asking myself]: What am I doing?  I realized I had to make a living. I was sending money to my mother… I need to get a job. One of the water polo players offered me an opportunity to work in the import/export business. I started working with him and had a lot of fun—and I retired from water polo.

– Then The Olympic Club asked you to join their team.

I was working in San Francisco. The Olympic Club was starting water polo again. In the early eighties, the masters had not started. We would play against college kids—it was the Indoor [National Tournament] but it was not always indoors. I was part of a group from The Olympic Club that built what we called: “The Nickle”—five national championships in a row.   Believe me, the New York Athletic Club and a few other clubs tried whatever they could to beat us. They recruited from anywhere and everywhere! We were fortunate that we had a nucleus of players, most of whom had played on the U.S. national team. They were all great water polo players—from Stanford or UCLA or Cal—mostly Cal.

It was a fantastic time! I had a lot of fun with The Olympic Club from ‘82 to ‘87.  Fun story: we went to a Latin America cup in Cuba. I went with the U.S. national team. We were playing against Cuba, Italy, and a couple of other teams and we win the tournament!  But, our U.S. coach—Monte [Nitzkowski]—[said] we could have done better, this and that. And I started dancing! By this time, I realized I’m not going to be part of this.  He said: Carlos! What are you doing?!  I said: Coach, I have lost against Cuba since I was 12 years old. Part of the reason I wanted to play with the U.S. was to beat Cuba. We just beat Cuba! In Cuba!

I’m dancing.

The meeting was over. He was pissed. And the other players loved it.  I got married in ’83, guys were having kids, we’re traveling to different places. And we were good at it. Monte asked me to come back but no, I was having too much fun. And that’s the thing about water polo. I needed to make money.  In ’87, the Puerto Rican team calls. Jessica was born in 1987, and they start calling me. They call me “Kaki.” That’s my nickname in Puerto Rico. “Kaki, you need to come to play”—with a bunch of younger guys who had played in the U.S. in college. I say: Guys, I’m a father. I’m traveling internationally for the import/export business. No!

But the phone calls kept coming, including Carlos Gonzalez. He’s not playing—it’s easy for him to make me come play! So, of course, after several phone calls, I talked to Peggy…  I trained by myself while the team was training in Puerto Rico and then the team came to California to train for four weeks. The Pan Am Games were in Indianapolis and I played as a team coach and captain. I felt myself to be quite old— 29. I was the Miguel Rivera back then.  1987, Pan American Games, I’m the player-coach and I give a big speech to the kids. I’ve never gone to a Pan American Games and lost every game. Never! We need to beat Mexico!  I didn’t believe we could beat Mexico but I was doing my best. Here comes the game, and we do quite well. With less than five seconds, the game is tied, and a penalty shot gets called against Mexico. Everyone turns to me: You’re gonna take this. If I make this, I will quit the sport. Typical negotiation with the guy upstairs, right? We’ve all done this in playing and in life, whatever.

I go there and I’ve developed a penalty shot that I would shoot around the ears—those were my previous penalties. The coach from Mexico, I had played against him for years. I knew they were going to cover the ears—they had studied me.  When the whistle blew I through the balls under the ears—I used to call it “Right Guard.” End of the story; we didn’t win any medals but we sure screwed up the whole thing.  Mexico was out of the medal round and was tied with Cuba.  The U.S. wrote me a letter to play for the [Seoul Games] in 1988. I think they were being nice; I had already developed a life. But that’s the end of my career.  I’ve played a few tournaments here and there with The Olympic Club, [but] that’s the end, in 1987.

– Your son played at Cal under Kirk Everist.

Charlie—our kids owe a lot to him. When you have a family of four you’re fortunate when the older kids help by example. Charlie was the first to play water polo in our family. Jim Purcell, one of my old water polo friends from Cal, came to our area and they had a program called Diablo Water Polo. We weren’t that good, but he was the coach, and he helped Charlie a lot, and he’s a good friend of mine.  Then Jim started dating Maureen O’Toole, who he is now married to. She came and helped—those two deserve a lot of credit helping our kids.  From a little summer club, [Charlie] started playing, then went to high school and played.  They all knew I had played—every Puerto Rican who showed up at my house would say how great I was—and as we get older we get better and better. The more beer you drink, you didn’t score two goals you scored 20.  Every year we would go to Puerto Rico and I’d take my kids. I taught them how to “rough up”—especially Maggie. By the time that Maggie came I had built a pool in my back yard and bought a goal. Charlie would play with Maggie, and you can imagine what happened with that.

Charlie was a co-captain of the age group national team. He traveled a lot and did really well at the age group level He was MVP of the senior—17 and under—Junior Olympics. That will give you an idea of how good he was.  Charlie ended up at Cal, and they were so close to a national championship. I think they lost in triple overtime sudden depth [12-10 loss to USC in 2010]. He was a co-captain of the team for a couple of years.

– Where do you see Puerto Rican water polo right now?

Once Maggie graduated—about three years ago—I decided to sell my business and everything out of California and go to Puerto Rico.  Unfortunately, there have been a series of natural events since I moved there which has made life complex. That was with the hurricane. Pools were shut down for long periods of time. We got earthquakes and now this…  The first six months I was there I went to the Central American Games as the team delegate. And perhaps I got too involved. Some of the coaches [said]: “You’re going to take my job!” I don’t care for your job, I just want to help.

[2019 Pan American Round-Up: Krikorian + Steffens on Water Polo in the Southern Hemisphere]

What I found is there is a lot of different pulling. You can’t do that on an island. This guy has a program, that guy has a program…they haven’t been able to work together for a long time.  I got involved and helped [at] the Central American Games, where both teams won medals, which has never been done. There are two clubs and I don’t think there has been a league in the last two years. The Puerto Rican team goes to this tournament in Florida [the South Florida International Tournament] and every year they do quite well in that age group. This year, the coach called me and said they played the 7 am game on Sunday. This means they were the shit.  We were ready to do this clinic—the Tropic Games with Maggie and Tony—through me, are trying to develop a traditional tournament [in San Juan] the week of Thanksgiving. We need to create special occasions where a kid could be the MVP of the Junior Olympics. The Tropic Games, the Maggie and Tony Trophy—whatever you want to call it.

For a long time—three years trying!—I got the government to agree, and we had everything set up. It was supposed to happen the weekend before Thanksgiving, and the idea is you go Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday. Tuesday—and families could stay for Thanksgiving or go home.

– Has the coronavirus pandemic ended this dream?

That’s what I think needs to happen. There’s a couple of clubs there right now. The level is very low and the sport is deteriorating. They’ve lost a lot of pool time. There’s not much [talent] behind. There was probably the last good group which is 20-something years old.  Hopefully, I will be able to help. But it will have to be from scratch. I can’t take a tree that is already sideways and make it straight.