By the time the clock struck midnight and the pop of champagne corks was heard at the victory party, the game's particulars had begun to fade from conversation. The feelings were what the U.S. women ice hockey players wanted to review: the lumps in their throats, the chills mat ran down their spines, the eye-dampening sight of goalie Sarah Tueting high-stepping around the ice like a crazed drum major after the U.S. won the gold medal game 3-1 against archnemesis Canada. Sandra Whyte, Tueting's onetime housemate in Boston, had sealed the victory, nudging in a 40-foot empty-net goal that the sellout crowd in Nagano's Big Hat stadium traced on its excruciatingly slow path to the net with a steadily building roar of oh-oh-ooOOHH! "I'm sure all of us will see ourselves celebrating on tape tomorrow and say, 'I did what? said U.S. forward A.J. Mleczko.
"All I could think was, We just won a gold medal—did we not just win a gold medal?" said Tueting, an apple-cheeked Dartmouth junior-to-be who made 21 saves, many of them spectacular, in the final, and then floated into both the postgame press conference and the victory party wearing a two-foot-tall foam-rubber Uncle Sam hat that her brother, Jonathon, had tossed onto the ice. Suddenly those despair-filled months in 1996, when Tueting was ready to quit hockey at age 19 because she'd never been invited to a U.S. national team tryout, seemed long, long ago. "I had gone home that summer, taken the Olympic posters off my bedroom wall and told everyone I was through," Tueting said. "Then August came, and I got a letter inviting me to camp. I made the national team.
In the space of two weeks I went from quit ting hockey to putting my life on hold to chase this dream. And now look."
In winning the six-team inaugural women's Olympic tournament with a 6-0 record, the U.S. team eclipsed Picabo Street as America's feel-good story of the Winter Games. On Sunday, General Mills announced that it had chosen Tueting and her teammates to adorn its post-Olympics Wheaties box. Just hours after the gold medal game on Feb. 17, the Late Show with David Letterman rushed 10 of the U.S. players to a Nagano TV studio to read a Top Ten List titled "Cool Things About Winning an Olympic Gold Medal." (No. 1: "Get to do Jell-O shots with Dave's mom.")
Sportswriters walked into the final grousing about having to cover it and walked out gushing that it was the best damn thing they'd ever seen. A felicitous line by Washington Post columnist Michael Wilbon, who called Mleczko "the first leftwinger I've ever had a crush on," was typical.
That stretching sound you hear is attitudes about women athletes continuing to expand. After the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics and now the Nagano Games, it's clear that the U.S.'s female athletic heroes don't have to play what Billie Jean King has jokingly called the "good clothes sports"—figure skating, tennis and golf. Women never lacked the strength or will to compete in the grittier sports, just the opportunity. When they get the chance, they can produce stirring results. As the U.S. men's Olympic goalie, Mike Richter of the New York Rangers, said admiringly after watching the U.S. women play Canada, "You felt so good for them, the way they were just bleeding for each other to win every game."
Since women's hockey staged its first world championships, in 1990, Canada had been the sport's colossus. It beat the U.S. in the final of that tournament and the three world championships that followed. In Nagano the deep, skilled Canadian team was led by 170-pound forward Hayley Wickenheiser, widely considered the best female player in the world, and by firebrand coach Shannon Miller, a Calgary cop whose give-no-quarter comments got under the U.S. players' skins. (Miller accused Whyte of taunting Canadian winger Danielle Goyette about the recent death of Goyette's father, which Whyte vigorously denied having done.) If crucible-tested experience were needed, the Canadians could lean on 32-year-old captain Stacy Wilson or 39-year-old forward France St. Louis. "She's 39?" said 18-year-old U.S. defenseman Angela Ruggiero. "My mom is 39!"
But the Americans had something going for them, too. Because the talent gap in women's hockey between North America and the rest of the world is so great, the U.S. and Canadian teams had spent much of the past three months barnstorming together to prepare for the Olympics, playing each other 13 times. Each game had been a board-rattling war.
Though Canada ended with a 7-6 advantage, the Americans won the Three Nations Cup in Lake Placid in December, defeating the Canadians in a tournament final for the first time. This breakthrough came just three days after an early-round loss to Canada in which the U.S. blew a three-goal lead. After that game U.S. coach Ben Smith made his players stand in the hallway and listen to the hooting in the Canadians' dressing room. U.S. forward Katie King says, "Right then we all just decided, Enough!'
In Nagano the Americans flung themselves into their first-round matchup with Canada, a game that was theoretically meaningless because both teams had already secured places in the gold medal showdown. Early in the first period Mleczko slammed Goyette to the ice near the Canadian bench. Before long Ruggiero had taken two body-checking penalties. Then, just when it was looking as if the emotional outburst had backfired—Canada raced to a 4-1 lead, all on power-play goals—the U.S. slammed in six unanswered goals in the last 13 minutes and won 7-4. Three nights later came the win for the gold.
And now? "It's back to the unemployment line," said defenseman Vicki Movsessian, who gave up her accounting job with Prudential to train for Nagano.