O'Donnell looks to lead U.S. field hockey to London

They thought they were done. Players on the U.S. women's field hockey team had just spent five punishing hours being goaded beyond their usual limits by members of the Navy SEALS.

They'd sprinted, lifted logs with their legs, carried boats on their shoulders and rowed to the point of exhaustion. But the workout at the U.S. Olympic training center in the desert heat of Chula Vista, Calif., wasn't over. The grand finale for the players, who were wearing long-sleeved shirts and cargo pants, was to scramble up the dirt trail to the top of nearby Mount San Miguel.

Katie O'Donnell recalled the order that really got her attention.

"If you hear a rattlesnake, let us know; we'll take care of it," one of the SEALS barked.

Zoned out, moving robotically, O'Donnell and her teammates took more than an hour to reach the end of the 2,500-foot-high trail. But, "once you're done, the view from the top is gorgeous," she said.

"You know you all did that and came out a stronger person. No one complained," O'Donnell said. "We were doing it for our teammates: 'I won't quit if you don't quit.' That physical pain will help when I do get on the field against Argentina, in that last game, when I've been hit so many times. It'll be the one little edge we have on everybody else."

Argentina represents the next figurative summit the U.S. team wants to conquer. The South American powerhouse is the top-seeded country in the eight-team tournament at the upcoming Pan American Games, which begins Friday in Guadalajara, Mexico. Winning the Pan Ams means an automatic Olympic bid. Anything other than winning means a much more circuitous hike through qualifying.

That might sound simple to anyone laboring under the misconception that field hockey is the exclusive province of suburban American girls. But the reality is it's a global game, and Argentina, with superb stick-handling skills and physicality, is one of the world's most formidable teams.

"Las Leonas" (the Lionesses) have held the region's gold medal perch since 1995 -- four straight Pan Am competitions -- eliminating the U.S. in the championship game each time. At the Olympic level, Argentina, led by gifted midfielder Luciana Aymar, has won silver (2000) and bronze (2004, 2008) medals in the past three Summer Games. The U.S. didn't qualify between 1996 and 2004. In Beijing in 2008, the U.S. drew Argentina as its first opponent and played to a tough 2-2 draw, but eventually finished eighth.

"Obviously, we have to get to the [Pan Am] finals first," O'Donnell, 22, said in a recent telephone interview from Chula Vista. "But all the talk is, when we play Argentina this, when we play Argentina that. Skill-wise and everything else, our attitude toward Argentina -- we have to remember that other teams have that mentality against us."

Head coach Lee Bodimeade couldn't agree more.

"Argentina is clearly the favorite to win, and that's been our focus," he said. "But in the pecking order, for teams like Canada and Chile, we're going to be the hunted.

"Our team has evolved. There's a belief and a lack of fear when we approach [Argentina]. The newer members of the team bring a brashness and don't succumb to the meaning of world rankings or past performances."

O'Donnell, the team's 5-foot-2 dynamo of a center forward, is an interesting combination of bold and humble. A star at Wissahickon (Pa.) High School, her playmaking talent earned her a spot on the senior national team at a precocious 16. She took time off from the University of Maryland to compete for a position on the 2008 Olympic team. But something tripped her on the way to that goal -- O'Donnell began reining in the very creativity and assertiveness that had distinguished her, and didn't make the cut.

"My mentality in 2008 was more of a 'don't mess up' mentality," O'Donnell said. "Once you have that, you're doomed. I learned from that, that I always need to go into games with a clear mind and say I'm going to do my best and just play. It wasn't so clear then. You want it so badly that you don't want to do anything wrong.

"Around May, I talked to the coach about my feelings. By then, it was too late to turn it around. I accepted I was here to learn for next time and help everyone else get better. It really sucked at the time. It was hard, I'm not going to lie, to watch [the Olympics]."

O'Donnell took that experience and put it to work back at Maryland, where she played a key role in the Terrapins' 2008 NCAA title run. The team won again in 2010 and O'Donnell, a four-time All-American and the first player in NCAA history to break the 100-assist and 300-point ceilings, was voted Sportswoman of the Year by the Women's Sports Foundation.

"She's really matured in her play," Bodimeade said. "She's embraced the center-striker role and she always worked hard and had tenacity on defense. We call her 'The Pest.' Spending time away from the [national] team, she learned how to dictate outcomes and now she can do that at the international level."

This Olympic lead-up has been tough on O'Donnell off the field. She's a self-described total homebody from a very close family, and misses seeing her eight nieces and nephews (all under 7 years old) in the Philadelphia area, as well as her boyfriend Michael Boal, an assistant coach at the University of Virginia.

It will be well worth it if the team takes the most direct path to London by prevailing in Mexico.

"I really think we will," O'Donnell said. "I'm ready."

Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.

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