London 2012: The Summer Olympics
12:23 am
Wed July 11, 2012

Women's Field Hockey Aims To End Olympic Drought

Originally published on Wed July 11, 2012 1:45 am

As one of the world's most popular sports, field hockey produces celebrities in Argentina, the Netherlands and Australia. But the sport is relatively obscure in the United States, where members of the women's national team receive a small monthly stipend and their notoriety comes from outside the country.

Later this month, the group heads to London, where it will try to earn the first American medal in the sport in 28 years.

With a back-and-forth rhythm like basketball and shots on goal that can exceed 100 miles per hour, it's not that hard to understand why field hockey is immensely popular in other parts of the world.

"We're seen as celebrities; we tend to have police escorts to the field," says Claire Laubach, a defender on the U.S. Olympic team who has made several trips to play in South America.

"And we usually stay in the same hotel as the Argentinean team," she says. "Just outside the hotels, they have barricades to keep the people back. It is quite the experience."

The scene is quite different here in the States.

Last month, the Americans played that same squad from Argentina at an exhibition game in Norfolk, Va. There were no police escorts or barricades at the game, which was sparsely attended despite free admission.

The generally anonymous U.S. team is a tight-knit group. For the past year, they've largely put careers and relationships on hold while training and living together in California. There has been rock-climbing, pumpkin-carving and training with SEALs. Yes, the kind from the military.

Michelle Kasold, a striker for the U.S. squad, recalls that day.

"Basically five straight hours of anything from pushups to crawling on the ground," she says, "to carrying boats, to carrying logs, to anything that they could think of."

After failing to qualify for the Olympics in 2000 and 2004, the U.S. women logged an international upset last fall by beating Argentina to earn this country's first-ever gold at the Pan Am games and qualify for the Summer Olympics in London.

Laubach says that while training with the Navy SEALs wasn't necessarily fun, it provided a sense of unity.

"It's just interesting to see how everyone deals with the stress that they're under," she says. "You will see some people rise to it, and some people will fall to it. But you will see the people who rise to it don't just go on without the other teammate, they help them along. I think it is interesting to see the dynamics that come out of it."

Laubach and Kasold are both graduates of Wake Forest University. So, too, is the captain of the team, Lauren Crandall. That gives the small private school in Winston-Salem, N.C., more ties to the 16-woman team than any other school.

Wake Forest coach Jen Averill calls her former players' accomplishments "ridiculous — it's just unbelievable pride."

When Crandall, Laubach and Kasold played for Averill at Wake Forest, they won three Division I national titles. Now they're taking aim at an Olympic medal — a goal the American team hasn't reached since 1984, three years before Kasold was born.

"I think about each day individually, but visualize what it would be like," Kasold says. "I see us standing on the podium because I know that we're good enough, we're capable of doing it. So I see it as the final product, the end, the goal."

Seven of the team's members were on the 2008 Olympic squad that finished eighth in Beijing. This group is confident and prepared for what awaits in London — including sellout crowds at one of the biggest venues of the games.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

One of the world's most popular sports is relatively obscure here in the United States. Field hockey produces cultural stars in Argentina, the Netherlands and Australia. The U.S. does have men's and women's national teams, but if there is any fame it comes outside the country. Later this month, the women's team is heading to the London Olympics in hopes of earning the first American medal in field hockey in decades.

North Carolina Public Radio's Jeff Tiberii spent some time with the team.

JEFF TIBERII, BYLINE: With the back and forth rhythm like basketball and shots on goal that can exceed 100 miles per hour, it's not that hard to understand why field hockey is immensely popular - in other parts of the world.

CLAIRE LAUBACH: We're seen as celebrities. We tend to have police escorts to the field.

TIBERII: Claire Laubach is a defender on the U.S. Olympic team and has made several trips to play in South America.

LAUBACH: And we usually tend to stay in the same hotel with the Argentinean team. Just outside the hotel, they have barricades to keep the people back - and it is quite the experience.

TIBERII: The scene is quite different here in the States.

(SOUNDBITE OF A FIELD HOCKEY GAME)

TIBERII: The Americans played that same squad from Argentina last month at an exhibition game in Norfolk, Virginia. There were not any police escorts or barricades. Admission was free.

This generally unknown team is close. For the past year, the group has largely put careers and relationships on hold while training and living together in California. There has been rock climbing, pumpkin carving and training with SEALs. Yes, the kind from the military.

Michelle Kasold plays attack for the U.S.

MICHELLE KASOLD: Basically five straight hours of anything from push-ups to crawling on the ground, to carrying boats, to carrying logs - just anything they can think of.

TIBERII: Navy SEALs are an elite Special Forces unit called upon by the military to do some of the most dangerous missions. Their intense training is legendary. Laubach says spending time with the SEALs wasn't necessarily fun, but it provided a sense of unity.

LAUBACH: It's just interesting to see how everybody deals with the stress that they're under. You will see some people rise to it and some people will fall to it. But you'll see that the people that rise to it don't just go on without the other teammate, they help them along. I think it is interesting to see the dynamics that come out of it.

TIBERII: Laubach and Kasold are both graduates of Wake Forest University. So, too, is the captain of the team, Lauren Crandle, giving the small private school in Winston-Salem, North Carolina three of the 16 women on the U.S. Field Hockey team, more than any other college.

Jen Averill coached the trio in school.

JEN AVERILL: Ridiculous and it's just unbelievable pride.

TIBERII: Averill's former athletes combined to win three national titles while at Wake Forest. Now they're taking aim at an Olympic medal. That hasn't happened for the U.S. since 1984, three years before Kasold was born.

KASOLD: I think about each day individually, but I do visualize what it would be like. I see us standing on the podium because I know that we're good enough, we're capable of doing it. So I see that as like the final product, the end, the goal.

TIBERII: Seven members are back from the 2008 Olympic team that finished 8th in Beijing. This group is confident and prepared for what awaits in London, including sell-out crowds at one of the biggest venues of the games.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Tiberii. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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