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Friday, March 9, 2012
U.S. field hockey finds a way

By Rachel Dawson

Rachel Dawson
Rachel Dawson tries to talk field hockey with a Spanish boy, without knowing a single word of the language.

Rachel Dawson will be blogging for espnW in the lead-up to this summer's London Olympics. Check back in a few weeks for more from Dawson, and read her previous posts here.

Seven years of French, three of Latin, two of Dutch, and I am still completely hopeless in Spain.

Me no habla espangola. And I got a few painful reminders of that when our team was in Spain last week for the Four Nations Tournament.

But, I get by, thanks to a big smile, engaged eyes and the impeccable timing of a comedic "I don't have a clue what you're saying but please forgive me because what do you really expect from an American?" shoulder shrug.

I don't speak a lick of Spanish, but I know how to get my point across. I find a way.

It's a lot like our team -- we are always finding a way. Those three little words, synonymous with "survive," pretty much sum up our two-week "holiday" in Spain for the tournament.

No matter what happened, our coach, former Australian striker Lee Bodimeade, was hell-bent on us winning in Spain. For him, it was personal: He wanted to redeem himself for Australia's loss to the Germans 20 years ago in the Olympic final.

Competing on the very same pitch as in the '92 Games, we did accomplish the tour essential -- we won the tournament against Great Britain, Spain and Belgium. But it wasn't easy, and it definitely wasn't pretty. There were sleepless, jet-lagged nights on the eve of early afternoon games. There were a stomach bug and bronchitis, lost teeth and infected blisters. There were games, lots of games and not a ton of rest time.

It seemed that en route to finding a way, we lost our way, more than once, and learned some humbling lessons.

Like, the three-goal deficit we had by halftime in our very first warm-up game against Belgium. Everything we did was a step off and a stick away. We lacked focus and intensity. It took a pretty honest halftime tuneup to give us the gusto we needed to fight back.

Lee gathered us together with fighting words: "This international hockey, it's not some skip around in the park. You don't just walk out there and expect to win. All you're doing out there is hoping; hoping that you'll win. Well, you know what hope is -- the first form of desperation. Go out there and play. Pass to each other. Help each other. Go make a game out it."

And we did. By game's end, we had climbed back to even ground. Bravo to us for having the courage to fight, but climbing out of self-dug holes is exhausting.

A few days later, another lesson came our way. They don't give points for how pretty you play, how many shots you take or how much possession you have. The only thing that matters is how many times you put that little white ball in the back of the net. Such wisdom was courtesy of a 0-3 loss to Spain in our final warm-up game prior to the official tournament. We dominated play, but it didn't matter. Spain had one shot and two penalty corners to our 10 shots and bazillion corners. The moral: Moments matter -- and we must own ours.

As frustrating as those lessons were, we were better for having learned them the hard way. In the first official game, we beat Great Britain, a team who had pummeled us five times in a row last December. We found the simple way to win -- play hard, smart and together -- all game long.

The win was invigorating. And the next day we took the field to redeem ourselves against Spain. But instead, we tied. The result was frustrating because, again, we dominated but didn't execute on our chances for a goal. As we debriefed the game, you could sense the tension on the team. How many times did we have to go through this? If we'd only scored on one of our many chances, we'd feel totally different about our performance.

I didn't have much time to ponder the matter. That evening I came down with a fever and spent the next day, an off day, in bed crippled by some unknown illness. I ended up sidelined for our final game against Belgium.

If we won here, the tournament was ours. We came out rough, but ready to fight. Julia Reinprecht made a crucial goal-line save a few minutes in. Moments matter. Chances were exchanged. We fought hard, kept ourselves in the battle and gave ourselves a chance to win.

At half, the score was still 0-0. The match remained scoreless as the second half dwindled away. One thing was clear: The game would go to the team with the stronger will. With about five minutes to go, we earned a penalty corner. Our attacking penalty corner unit executed flawlessly. Claire Laubach sent a rocket to the lower right-hand corner of the goal. On the goal line, it kicked off a Belgian foot, and Reinprecht slapped the loose ball into the net.

The ref blew a long whistle: goal! But the Belgians were furious. After further inquiry, the goal was taken away, and a penalty stroke awarded (supposedly the referee had blown for the stroke before the goal was hit).

Lauren Crandall, who had missed two strokes previously in the tournament, stepped to the spot. I couldn't watch. We needed this moment. Find a way, Cran, find a way. I looked away from the goal, opened my ears and heard the ball slap against the board. GOOOOOOOOAL!

We won, 1-0. I was so proud of us that day. It wasn't pretty, at all, but we found a way, and I guess that is what we will continue to do. We will make mistakes, we'll learn more of these lessons and we'll grow.

And in the end, we'll just find a way. I know it.