A new togetherness has the U.S. women's hockey team streaking toward the Games
Having bunked with more than a dozen Olympic veterans since the U.S. women's hockey team started living and training together in September 2000, rookie forward Andrea Kilbourne, 21, has gotten daily advice on everything from archrival Canada's hoariest nicks to what to pack for Salt Lake City. However, on the subject of Team USA's 27 straight wins over the past five months, Kilboune's mentors have offered no comment "I don't know if anyone is sure why we are playing so well," says Kilbourne of the streak, which includes an 8-0-0 record against Canada. "It's like no one wants to jinx it."
Until last fall it looked as if 2002 might be a transition year for the Americans, who won the gold medal in 1998. Canada, smarting from its silver medal showing, has won the three world championships since then, beating the U.S. in the final each time. However, the Americans' latest run, which was capped by a come-from-behind, 3-2 win over Canada on Jan. 8, has left no question as to who is the favorite heading into Salt Lake City. Although the U.S. will be wary of win-starved Canada, which was outscored 31-13 in the two teams' past eight meetings, as well as improving Russia and pesky Finland, "there's no question we're playing faster, stronger and better than ever," says defenseman Karyn Bye, 30 and in her 10th year on Team USA. Says A.J. Mleczko, 26, a standout defenseman from the '98 squad, "In the last Olympics, we were pioneers. This team has better individual talent."
A mix of veterans, including 14 Nagano holdovers, and precocious talent, including 2000 Park Center ( Minn.) High graduate Krissy Wendell, who led the Americans in points, goals and assists during the 2000-01 season, the U.S. is dangerously versatile. "So many of our starters can play forward or defense, and any of our centers can play at either wing," says coach Ben Smith, who also guided the team in the 1998 Games. "We can mix things up quite effectively."
Making all these diverse elements blend is the result of a six-month chemistry experiment. From the start of the team's training, Smith has insisted that players reside at the Olympic facility in Lake Placid, N.Y., where the daily regimen included, among other things, 20-minute predawn runs and two-hour morning skates. There were also afternoon weightlifting and cardio sessions. "It's been an extremely difficult year," says Mleczko, "but the more time we spend together, the more cohesive a unit we become."
Smith hopes that the total immersion will foster the sort of unity that made the 1998 squad better than the sum of its parts. "We have the skills, but do we have the intangibles?" says Smith of his biggest concern leading up to the Americans' first game, against Germany on Feb. 12. Last week, in the U.S.'s final pre-Olympics matchup against Canada, Bye became convinced that the Americans are as inspired as they were four years ago. "After we came back after being down in the third period, I looked at the faces of teammates I see every day," she says. "Wow, I thought. This team wants it so badly."
Riding the momentum of successful pre-Olympic play into the Games is a trick that Canada, which beat the U.S. in seven of 13 games preceding the 1998 Olympics, couldn't pull off. "We've made extraordinary progress over the past year," says Smith, who reminded his team, giddy in the locker room after its final pre-Olympic win over Canada, that the only games that matter had yet to be played. "Ifs as if we started a weight-training program in September. Now we have to find a way to max out."
U.S. Figure Skating Trials
Goebel: Second But Best
Don't be misled by the results of the men's competition at last week's U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Los Angeles, which doubled as the Olympic trials. Todd Eldredge, 30, won his sixth American title, but 21-year-old Tim Goebel is still the U.S. skater to watch next month in Salt Lake.
Goebel, the defending champion, may have finished second in the eyes of the judges, but the so-called King of Quads, who trains in nearby El Segundo, wasn't fazed. "If the three of us had skated the same programs before international judges, you would have seen a different result," Goebel said, referring to himself, Eldredge and Michael Weiss, 25, who finished third and will join the other two at the Games. "International judges care more about technical difficulty, and technically I have a huge edge."