Rapper Flavor Flav is getting behind the US women's water polo team at the Paris Olympics.
CNN  — 

Flavor Flav has been many things throughout his career: rapper, reality TV star, even restaurant owner.

Now, the clock-wearing musician has found a new and unlikely calling in the sports world, offering his services as hype man for the US women’s water polo team ahead of this year’s Paris Olympics.

The decision was seemingly spontaneous. Flav decided to get behind the team after seeing an Instagram post from captain Maggie Steffens, who was making a rallying cry for more people to follow the sport with the Olympics looming.

“I was definitely shocked and it felt very surreal,” Steffens tells CNN Sport about seeing that Flav had responded to her post. “It’s great because what water polo needs, and what a lot of these niche sports need, is someone to open the door to our sport. There’s only so much that we as the athletes can do.”

Flav, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee best known for co-founding rap group Public Enemy, hopes to be poolside for some of the USA’s games in Paris. Replying to Steffens on Instagram, he pledged to “use all my relationships and resources” to support the team in the build-up to the Games.

“Everybody wants to know what it feels like to have that chance, and I know what it feels like to want to have a chance,” Flav told TMZ Live last month.

“A guy like me, I try to provide that. That’s why I’m sponsoring this women’s water polo team. I just want to help out and I just want to give back. I want to help these women achieve their goals.”

And those goals are not insubstantial. Steffens and her peers are aiming to make history in Paris as the first women’s water polo team to win four consecutive Olympic gold medals, with the 30-year-old part of each of the previous three successes.

Steffens is a veteran of the US women's water polo team.

Despite such dominance, the team is still largely unknown to many. Like other sports, water polo can struggle to attract audiences outside the spotlight of the Olympics, which only come around once every four years.

That’s where Flav comes in.

“The best way to explain it is he’s being a hype man,” says Steffens.

“It’s honestly less about financial support, more about: how can he help [get] more eyes on our team, on the incredible women of our team and the women who have come before us? How can we get water polo in more people’s mouths and in front of more people’s eyes as best as possible?”

USA Water Polo membership almost doubled from 26,837 in 2008 to more than 50,000 in 2019, including increased participation at high school and college levels, according to USA Water Polo.

Steffens, who tied the record for the most goals (21) scored at an Olympics as a teenager in 2012, acknowledges that she has seen the sport grow during her 15 years on the national team.

However, she wants her legacy to be more than medals, records, and statistics, but making water polo “common knowledge” and “common language” among the general public.

One day, Steffens hopes, people might understand the nuts and bolts of the sport, rather than always asking if you’re allowed to touch the bottom of the pool (you’re not).

“Sometimes I’ve been told, ‘oh, too bad you’re not a soccer player’ or ‘too bad you’re not a basketball player’ or something, because that’s on TV more,” she adds. “But water polo for me is my whole life. It’s my gift. I wouldn’t be who I am without my sport.”

Steffens and her teammates are currently living in Long Beach, California, training for up to seven hours each day in preparation for the Olympics.

Right now, the focus is almost solely on water polo – “as you get close to the Olympics, it’s almost like the knife gets sharpened,” says Steffens – but that’s not always the case.

Most water polo players have other jobs on top of their athletic careers, and for the US women’s team, that means coaching in high schools and colleges, teaching, attending graduate school, or working in marketing and sales.

Steffens has co-founded a data company, 6-8 Sports, and has also earned money by playing overseas.

“Everyone knows the cost of living in California, and most Olympians are living on minimum wage or under minimum wage,” she says. “A lot of times you’re praying for bonus money, you’re praying to win a tournament so that you can afford the things that you need in order to compete, in order to live.”

Team USA's women’s water polo team pose for a photo ahead of the Paris Olympics.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) doesn’t distribute prize money at the Games, though athletes can earn money from their National Olympic Committees (NOCs), governing bodies, or sponsorship deals.

Still, it can be challenging for athletes to fund a place at the Olympics, particularly in smaller, less mainstream sports.

The US does not receive government funding for its Olympic programs, and the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee offers “limited” financial support to sporting bodies, according to USA Water Polo, which is also funded by membership fees and gift donations.

“If you’re going to be an Olympic athlete, unless you are a professional team athlete who makes an Olympic team, you’re going to be basically forced to contribute a fair amount of money as well as time,” Mark Conrad, a professor of law and ethics at Fordham University Gabelli School of Business, tells CNN Sport.

“And you have to take jobs to do that. I have heard stories of elite track and field members who have worked waiting tables, if they can … It’s a difficult row to hoe if you’re going to go the Olympic route.”

Earlier this year, World Athletics announced that it would be awarding $50,000 to each track and field gold medalist in Paris, becoming the first international federation to award prize money at an Olympics, and added that the bonus initiative would be extended to silver and bronze medalists at the Los Angeles Games in 2028.

Boxing then followed suit, offering more than $3.1 million in prize money to athletes, coaches and federations at this year’s Games.

The announcements have placed renewed focus on the question of athlete pay at the Olympics – the most prestigious event for many of the sports being showcased.

“It’s amazing what Olympians are able to do with their drive and ambition,” says Steffens. “This isn’t just water polo – this is for a lot of these niche sports that aren’t able to get the support through bigger sponsorships or professional leagues.”

A talented athlete growing up, Steffens settled on water polo because it combined elements of other sports she enjoyed playing: the ball control of basketball, the fast arm of baseball, the team interplay of soccer, the balance of gymnastics, the physicality of hockey, and the strength and endurance of swimming.

“It’s super tough but I think that’s why it’s so fun,” says Steffens. “And it’s truly for anyone. You look at the type of people who play and you look at our team and we’re all different body composition, all different heights.”

“[Water polo] can equalize that,” she adds, “and can highlight different strengths in people and can make you really proud of your body and what it can do.”

That, Steffens hopes, is something we can all cheer for – regardless of whether you’re a casual fan or one of the world’s most famous hype men.