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1996 Games inspire Pfeiffer's dream
In July 1996, 8-year-old Lauren Pfeiffer sat among the home crowd at Herndon Stadium in Atlanta, her family close by her side, taking in a men's Olympic field hockey match.
Lauren Pfeiffer starred at Iowa before joining the US national team in 2009. She's been training in Chula Vista, Calif., ever since.Photo by Casie Buschmann
She doesn't remember what nation the United States was playing that afternoon, but it doesn't much matter. The results that year were hardly memorable. The men's national team lost all seven of its matches in '96, and none of them were particularly close.
All Pfeiffer knows, and all that matters, is what the moment — the fanfare and the spectacle of the Olympic Games and the national pride that enveloped her, despite the home team's struggles — meant to a young kid from South Jersey, an impressionable girl with a bright, vast future ahead of her.
"There was just something about the atmosphere and the game that I will always remember," Pfeiffer recalled recently during an interview amid the undying lights, buzz and shrieking sirens of Times Square. "Just the feeling I got watching the game — it was just incredible to me, and it was neat to be able to experience."
The experience sparked a passion in Pfeiffer, and this summer — 16 years after her initial brush with the sport that one day would consume her life — her dream finally will be realized when she and her teammates take the field in London in search of the United States' first women's field hockey medal in nearly three decades.
"I told myself then, 'I want to be playing in these Games,'" Pfeiffer said, looking back on her initial exposure to the Olympic experience. "I'm sure anyone my age would have said the same thing, but it's neat to finally be this close."
Her on-field journey began in eighth grade, when Pfeiffer — who was exposed to the sport from a young age by her mother, Harla, a former field hockey star at Rowan — first picked up a stick. She caught on quickly and went on to become a three-time All-State player at Lenape High School in Medford, NJ.
Pfeiffer then played four years at Iowa, where she started 83 games, was named a two-time All-American and led the Hawkeyes to three straight Big Ten championships and the 2008 Final Four.
During her senior season in Iowa City, Pfeiffer led the Hawkeyes in points (44), goals (20) and shots (129). Her 53 career goals rank ninth all-time at the school. Pfeiffer netted the team's only goal in her final college game, a double-overtime loss to No. 1 Maryland in the national semifinal game in Louisville.
A short time later, she was brought on with the US national team, and she's been training in Chula Vista, Calif., ever since.
"It's difficult being on the West Coast and having to travel in order to see my family," Pfeiffer said, referring to her mother; her father, Bob; her younger sister, Jen, who just finished playing soccer at St. Joseph's; and her older sister, Kelly, a triathlete who completed her first Ironman competition in 2010.
"We've kind of been in full-time training for the last two years, but I love it."
The whole Pfeiffer clan expects to reconvene this July in London, where Lauren hopes to play a role in a breakthrough games for the US team, which has largely struggled to make a name for itself in Olympic play since women's field hockey debuted in 1980.
The team has only medaled once — a bronze at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles — and has participated only one other time, at the 2008 Games in Beijing, when it failed to reach the medal round with one win, one loss and three draws in pool play.
The prevailing thought is that the US's lack of international success has contributed to the stunting of field hockey's growth domestically — the sport is remarkably more popular abroad — but the hope is that this is the summer all that changes.
"Field hockey is a fast game, and I think people don't give it a chance sometimes, but it's really fun to watch," Pfeiffer explained. "There's not much (field hockey) on the West Coast, and only a little bit in the South. It's only in a few select areas that they have it ... but I think there's been more support for US field hockey, and that's one way to show that it's growing."
Less than two decades removed from being just another cherub face in the sweltering Herndon Stadium bleachers, Pfeiffer has a chance, along with her teammates, to become the face of the growing women's field hockey movement.
That's not necessarily what Pfeiffer always had in mind — at least not until that fateful day in Atlanta in 1996 — but she's certainly satisfied with where her path has led her.
"Eight-year-old me would probably say 'Yeah, definitely,'" Pfeiffer said, looking back on her Olympic journey. "But 15-year-old me? She would probably think this would never have happened."
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