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Field hockey not bunch of princesses
When Princess Kate, the Royal Family’s ambassador to the Olympics, recently requested an audience with the British field hockey team — and took a few shots with them — didn’t that just figure?
Field hockey is, after all, the domain of prep schools, ponytails and plaid skirts.
When Olympic athletes at a media summit arrived in Ralph Lauren polo shirts, it was hard to tell if the field hockey players were in uniform — or had just dug into their closets.
But for many members of the United States team, elitist trappings do not ensure a privileged existence.
That’s what Katie O’Donnell has been reminded of while spending most of the past year crammed into an apartment with four teammates near their training base in Chula Vista, Calif., depending on her parents to help out with car insurance and the phone bill.
It is also what passed through Lauren Crandall’s thoughts when she was ankle deep in mud, grunting to keep up with Navy SEALS during training exercises.
If not quite the life of an ascetic, the Americans hope that these experiences of shared sacrifice have built the requisite togetherness and toughness to earn their first medal since 1984.
That will not be easy. The United States, ranked 10th in the world, must finish at least second in their six-team pool — which includes No. 2 Argentina, No. 3 Germany, No. 6 New Zealand, No. 7 Australia and No. 12 South Africa — to reach the semifinals.
Outside of a few East Coast enclaves — 14 of the 16 players on the team are from Pennsylvania, New Jersey or Virginia — field hockey is rarely played. But with Princess Kate as a benefactor, the sport figures to command a greater degree of attention in London and possibly from NBC networks. Already, some players’ families are concerned about getting tickets to the games.
“She’s just an idol to a lot of people,” O’Donnell said of the princess. “If she says she likes whatever book, I’ll bet you it’s going to be a top seller on the list. If she likes field hockey, it’s going to be televised; it’s going to be a big deal because she likes it. I’ll thank her when I see her — with my gold medal.”
That would take some doing for a team that finished eighth in Beijing, a result of three ties, a win and a loss in pool play. Seven players from that team are returning to the Olympics. But they are buoyed by a victory last October over then top-ranked Argentina in the semifinals of the Pan-American Games, which clinched their berth in London.
And they believe they have been hardened by workouts with the SEALs, who have worked with several United States teams in recent months.
The idea, Crandall and O’Donnell said, is to see how athletes’ bodies — and minds — respond under a great deal of stress.
“Every time there was a little anxiety,” Crandall, the team captain, said of the team's four sessions with the SEALS. “Obviously, women are not Navy SEALs. GI-Jane is not true.”
The sprinting, weight training and leaning on each other was given a new context. For example, when teams had to carry a log through a bog, if they dropped it, they would be given a heavier log.
“Our pressure situations are being in a game, so it’s hard to simulate that kind of pressure — physical, emotional and mental — in a practice,” Crandall said. “It’s hard to simulate it without going through the games, but you can’t just play games. They’re the best at physically stressing your body to the point where you want to break, and you mentally get to a point where you say, ‘I can either stop and fail or continue and make sure my team succeeds.’ When you get into a game, and you think you don’t have any more, and you can’t do one more sprint, the SEALs say you have 40 percent more, which is a lot. At some point, you’re going to say, 'Do I stop or do I continue?' and having been through that with all my teammates, knowing everybody’s chosen the path to get through it, is something that’s helped our team immensely.”
Much of the past year has been an exercise in team bonding, if not running with SEALs or beating Argentines, then simply living, having to decamp across the country in San Diego. Endorsement money is scant, jobs are typically temporary — Crandall has coached and worked in a bakery — and stipends from the US Olympic Committee barely cover the basics, which explains why O’Donnell has been happy to be sharing a five-bedroom apartment with four teammates. She finally has her own room.
She used to be among seven women shoehorned into a three-bedroom apartment. “When somebody’s boyfriend comes to visit, the roommate has to sleep on the couch,” O’Donnell said. “You’re like, sorry.”
Moving into the Olympic Village later this month, then, should not require so much sacrifice.
And, if their living quarters and training over the past year have fostered more teamwork and toughness, then perhaps they’ll step onto the medal platform and feel like royalty after all.
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