Field Hockey: U.S. squad plays for bid in 2012 Olympics
Senior midfielder Katie Reinprecht, junior midfielder Julia Reinprecht and junior striker Michelle Cesan were among the 16 players who made the women’s field hockey roster for the 2011 Pan-American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, a competition held every four years. Winning a gold medal would be an accomplishment in its own right, but it comes with an additional prize — the Pan-Am Games champion automatically qualifies for the 2012 Olympic Games in London, the ultimate goal for every member of the national team.
But that prize will not come easily — to get there, the United States will have to defeat No. 1 Argentina in tonight’s final. In four tournament games, Argentina has recorded three shutouts while outscoring its opponents a combined 41-3. The prohibitive favorite won last year’s World Cup and has taken gold in all six field hockey tournaments at the Pan-Am Games, beating the U.S. team in the finals five times.
With a relatively new roster, the Americans hope to break that streak this year.
“The current U.S. team consists of many younger players who actually haven’t gotten a chance to play Argentina,” Cesan said in an email. “We are all aware of their history and their number-one ranking, but we have been preparing for this final game for such a long time that intimidation will not be an issue.”
Cesan’s first Pan-Am Games goal is one of the reasons that the United States is playing for the championship. In the first half of Wednesday’s semifinal against Canada, Cesan took a pass from defender Shannon Taylor in front of the cage and pushed it past the goalkeeper, giving the United States its first lead. The American team held that advantage for the rest of the match, winning 4-2 to secure a place in the finals.
“The entire experience of the Pan-Am Games has been extraordinary, let alone scoring in the semifinals,” Cesan said. “I would have never imagined myself being here three months ago when I was selected for the team.”
The Pan-American Games have been held every four years since 1951, though women’s field hockey has only been a participating sport since 1987, 20 years after the men’s event began. The United States team has won silver five times and bronze in the other, and it entered this year’s tournament ranked No. 13 worldwide, second-best in the field.
“With the new field hockey venue [in Guadalajara], the enthusiastic crowds and the possibility of qualifying for the Olympics on the line, the pressure and intensity are heightened,” Julia Reinprecht said. “It’s truly an incredible atmosphere, especially while being surrounded by so many world-class athletes who are in similar situations.”
Though all three players have competed at international tournaments before, they agreed that none matched the atmosphere of the Pan-American games. With athletes competing for their countries in 40 different sports, the size and spectacle of this event is matched by few others.
“Staying in the Pan-American village is something completely new to me,” Katie Reinprecht said. “It still amazes me to see how much thought and effort have been put into providing quality housing, dining and entertainment for the athletes participating in the games. Life in the village is a spectacle in itself.”
“Here, we are competing alongside many other U.S. teams, and we are each fighting for a common goal: the gold medal,” Cesan said. “It is a family atmosphere, whereas in my previous experiences, competitions have been selectively field hockey with one team representing each country. Here, all the U.S. athletes are brought together under one roof in the athlete village.”
The Games run from Oct. 14 to Oct. 30, but the women’s field hockey tournament did not begin until Oct. 19. In its opening game of pool play, the United States thrashed Mexico, 5-0. Katie Reinprecht scored the team’s first two goals of the tournament, finding the cage in the ninth and 11th minutes to take a commanding lead.
“Being able to score in the first game was obviously a great feeling, just as any contribution is to the team’s overall success,” she said.
The eight qualifiers were split into two groups for a three-game round of pool play, with the top two teams from each advancing to the medal round. The U.S. team won its pool, fighting off Chile for a 2-1 win before thrashing Cuba 9-0.
“Being only two games away from potentially qualifying for the Olympic Games is an incredible thought, but something that I try to push aside,” Julia Reinprecht said before the team played Canada. “So far, this is the situation that our team wanted to be in with winning our pool; however, we know that the opposition recognizes the opportunity of qualification as well, and our team is just focusing on playing our best.”
If the U.S. team loses to Argentina today, there is another path to the Olympics — three qualifying tournaments will be held in early 2012, with the winners receiving tickets to London, but each team is only allowed to participate in one of these tournaments.
Though they said that they are trying to keep their focus on each game, the thought of being 70 minutes away from the Olympics is certainly a thrill. And above all, the athletes said, they are enjoying the experience.
“The feeling of playing for your country at this international stage is quite incredible,” Katie Reinprecht said. “It’s virtually impossible to stand on the field and listen to the anthem play without feeling an overwhelming sense of pride and honor.”
(Update: The U.S. team upset Argentina, 4-2, earning its first Olympics bid since 1996 and its third in the past 50 years.)