The Road to London: After big U.S. upset, quartet eyes Olympics
The Road to London is a series focusing on current and former Princeton athletes training for the 2012 Olympics. See the rest of the series here.
As the clock reached zero in the field hockey finals of the Pan-American Games on Oct. 28, the players from Team USA tossed their equipment in the air and hugged in jubilation, celebrating a shocking 4-2 upset of Argentina, the world’s top-ranked team. Not only did the United States become the first team besides Argentina ever to win the Pan-Am games, it clinched the ultimate prize — a guaranteed spot in the 2012 London Olympics.
“That game had been such a focus for us for a couple months,” junior Julia Reinprecht said. “For it actually to culminate in such a victory for us, to give everything we had and to know we were actually going to win the game against the No. 1 team in the world ... it was, hands down, the best athletic moment of my life.”
“I was actually on the bench at the time, and all I wanted to do was jump over the fence,” junior Michelle Cesan said. “As soon as the clock struck zero, all of us just ran out and threw all of our gear off in excitement.”
Four current Tigers — Cesan, Reinprecht, senior Katie Reinprecht and senior Kat Sharkey — and Maren Langford ’06 are among the 23 players training with the national team in preparation for the Olympics. Since June, these players have focused solely on field hockey — putting their academic plans on hold, in the case of the four former teammates — at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif.
Though they have spent most of their time with a single focus, the players said that the months have flown by.
“It is going by so fast. I cannot believe that it’s already May, and we’ll only be here for a few more months,” Sharkey said. “It’s crazy to think that we’ve been at this for about a year now.”
A typical week of training involves four days of work at the USOC complex, with mandatory runs on most “off” days. Morning practices, starting around 8:00, feature lots of competition and game-simulation; they are generally followed by an afternoon session of lifting or another practice. Occasionally, workouts are as unconventional as they are strenuous — Katie Reinprecht appeared on CNN on Wednesday to talk about the team’s recent training session with Navy SEALs.
But a lot of the team’s time has been spent away from its temporary home, playing tournaments abroad to prepare for what lies ahead. Recently, the U.S. team spent 23 days competing in Australia and New Zealand; while the final leg was packed with competition, the players got to explore some of the local scene in Australia.
“The games were played in what they call one of their country towns,” Julia Reinprecht said. “On the last day, we ate with the Australian team at a classic Australian ‘barbie’ and got to try kangaroo, emu and crocodile. They tried to introduce us to some of their delicacies.”
Cesan, Sharkey and the Reinprechts live with four other teammates in a house about 20 minutes away from the training center. The majority of the national team is composed of college graduates, making the four Tigers among the youngest players, but coming in with close friends helped them get used to the new situation.
“It definitely made the transition to living this lifestyle a lot easier. Not only to have friends you can confide in, but having family out here ... it’s hard to say how amazing it’s been to have my sister here with me,” Katie Reinprecht said. “It’s made the transition out here easy, and I think the transition back home, getting back in the school life, will seem more seamless with three other people to do it with.”
The 23 members of the team may be friends and teammates, but in one sense, they are also rivals — only 16 will be chosen to compete in the Olympics, plus a pair of alternates who will travel with the team.
The players said that the looming roster decision, which will be made in June, does not significantly affect their chemistry as a team.
“It’s been okay, surprisingly. There are always moments in practice when it gets super competitive — everyone’s working as hard as they can, and selection spots are obviously an issue — but you just do what you can do, and the coaches will ultimately choose the team,” Julia Reinprecht said. “Everyone’s trying to keep the same atmosphere and not make it personal.”
Cesan and the Reinprechts were among the 16 players on the Pan-Am Games roster, while Sharkey and Langford were named alternates. Katie Reinprecht tallied two goals in the tournament, while Cesan scored in the semifinal.
“I don’t really find [competing for roster spots] difficult. I just try to focus on my own game,” Sharkey said. “The selections are out of your control, you play your best and the coaches are the ones that decide.”
The team will play a series in Canada from May 17-24 and host a rematch with Argentina in June. After that, the only competition left will be the biggest one: the London Olympics. Field hockey competition will take place from July 29-Aug. 11.
“We’re definitely getting more nervous as the date approaches,” Cesan said. “There’s always a countdown in our heads. We pretty much go to the training center every day with the mindset that we have to put out everything we can to get the results we want at the Olympics, which is a gold medal.”