It was a bit strange at first, but Vanina Oneto, the sharpshooting forward on Argentina's national field hockey team, has grown accustomed to police escorts. Because field hockey stadiums, unlike soccer venues, are not equipped to stop a dangerous mob from spilling onto the field, the first ladies of Argentine sport get personal attention from the authorities. Add to that the adoring fans who approach Oneto on the street and the days she spends shooting television commercials, and she often imagines she's dreaming. Not that she minds. "I don't want to open my eyes," says Oneto, a 28-year-old who led her team to the silver medal at the 2000 Olympics and to the Champions Trophy last summer. "I want this all to continue."
Oneto has helped turn field hockey into the women's equivalent of soccer in Argentina. During the Sydney Games the Argentine team, known back home as las Leonas (the Lionesses), roused Argentineans out of bed at four in the morning for live telecasts of their games. Oneto, who scored four goals against New Zealand to propel Argentina to the gold medal match, is known for displaying her feelings on the field. She and las Leonas, a name they gave themselves to remind them to be courageous, screamed, cried and rejoiced at each pivotal play, stirring their country to feel every emotion with them. Along the way field hockey in Argentina was transformed from a sport that little girls play to one that grown men watch. When the Australian national team visited last April for a four-match series, 18,000 fans showed up with drums in their hands and songs in their throats. "A few years ago only our family and people we knew came," says Oneto. "Now everybody's really passionate. There's really a romance between them and us."
The romance is particularly strong with Oneto, who spends her time coaching kids at hockey clinics when she's not training with the national team or her San Fernando club. "Being part of making hockey grow in Argentina is great," she says, "and I want to make it grow, grow and grow as much as I can."