Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Athlete's Life [Print without images]

Friday, October 14, 2011
Updated: October 18, 3:12 PM ET
U.S. field hockey team heads for Pan Ams

By Rachel Dawson

We aren't used to crowds. We have a small following of faithful that includes our friends, families, and a few field hockey aficionados. Otherwise, America doesn't know much about our sport. Unless, of course, you happen to live in a small Pennsylvania Dutch town, or in one of those isolated pockets -- like my hometown of Berlin, New Jersey -- where field hockey has made a niche for itself.

Combine the eye-hand coordination skill sets of other stick sports like ice hockey, cricket, baseball and lacrosse with the tactical elements of soccer, add a marshmallow man-like goalkeeper between the metal posts, and you ought to have a blurry image of our game.

Rachel Dawson
Rachel Dawson, a 2008 Olympian, will be one of the leaders of the American team at Pan Ams. The U.S. hopes to upset Argentina and claim a 2012 Olympic berth.

We wear skirts. Our legs are usually decorated with patterns of black, blue, and red. The turf is cruel. When we dive and tumble, it rips our skin raw. Yet, we dive and tumble anyway. The ball is even crueler -- it is plastic, roughly the size of a baseball, inscribed with 356 small dimples and it moves up to 75 mph during the course of a game.

As defenders, our duty is to put our bodies in the line of that nasty little bugger. When we get hit, our coach comforts us with his astounding logic: if you get hit, you are in the right spot. We don't like to show weakness, so when we get knocked real hard with the ball, through pain-filled grins, we yell "America!" It reminds us who we play for, and why the pain is worth it.

Look at any one of us, and you are bound to find a mark with some gruesome story -- broken noses, split eyebrows and chins, lost teeth -- the reminders of sacrifice for sport.

We are the U.S. field hockey team. A group of passionate, competitive, fun-loving and determined women who don't play for the big bucks, the crowds, or the glorious guarantee of victory. We play for that ever powerful cliché 'for the love of the game.'

A formidable challenge lies ahead of us -- the quest for Olympic qualification. A first place finish in the upcoming eight-team Pan American Games from Oct. 19  28 in Guadalajara, Mexico will secure us one of the 12 bids to the 2012 London Olympics.

We have never won the Pan Am Games. In the six competitions held since 1987, Argentina, our South American nemesis, has claimed six golds while we have taken five silvers and one bronze. We are ranked No. 13 in the world; Argentina No. 1.

The disparity seems daunting. Compare the team's respective histories and you will be inclined to think it is a no-contest. Impossible, you may say.

Luckily, we don't descend from that breed of pragmatist. We don't base our decision to pursue victory on some preconceived notion of what is 'supposed to be.' We are focused on right now, on doing what we can with what we have. We train hard: on the field, in the weight-room, with the Navy Seals. We attend to the details of optimized performance: nutrition, hydration, sleep. Most of all, we enjoy every moment of the process, enthused and strengthened by the unity of the team. We know this journey won't last forever, so we take each moment as it comes, seizing each opportunity as it presents itself.

We depart on Thursday from our home base in Chula Vista excited about the challenge that awaits us.

Because if all the games we have played, and all the knocks we have taken, have taught us one thing, it is that there are no guarantees in sport. All we can do is work our bums off, put our trust in each other and how we train, and go out there and give our damn best.

So in the spirit of America, jump on board! This is field hockey, baby.