Parsons doesn't act, or play, her age

Sarah Parsons has had a heavy-duty to-do list this year.

" Debut with the U.S. women's hockey team? Check.

" Earn high school diploma? Check.

" Celebrate 18th birthday in July? Check.

" Get accepted at prestigious college program? Check.

" Put that on hold for a year for a chance to play in the 2006 Olympics? No-brainer.

And just try checking her when she's got her eye on that goal.

Parsons wasn't quite born yesterday. But she is the youngest player on the U.S. women's hockey team's pre-Olympic tour roster, well on the way to working herself into a picture she's stared at for much of her life: a signed poster of the 1998 U.S. Olympic gold-medal team that is still on the wall of her bedroom in Dover, Mass.

She plans to enter Dartmouth College next fall. Right now, she's getting a different kind of education, having graduated from skating with girls and boys to crossing sticks with the best women in the world.

Quick, tenacious, elusive under defensive pressure and a gifted, instinctive scorer, Parsons seems as suited as anyone to take that giant stride. But U.S. coach Ben Smith, though praising Parsons as "a master chess player" on the ice, still cautions that "it's a tough thing she's trying to do.''

Parsons told the veterans about the poster and her heroine worship when she was called into camp before the World Championships last spring, but "as soon as I came in, they made me feel comfortable,'' she said. "They all did a really good job of saying, 'You can do this.'"

It's been done before by several current players, including forward Natalie Darwitz, who began playing for the national team at 15 and finished her senior year of high school while training for the 2002 Olympics.

But jumping from preps to a contender for the Olympic podium still requires a major adjustment in terms of speed, skill and schedule.

The U.S. team has played four games since early September (Parsons had three assists in one of them) and has another 13 games, including three during a test event in Italy, slated between now and the end of the year. But Parsons is now training more than she's playing, a big switch from her peripatetic prep lifestyle.

She competed for the Noble and Greenough School in the Boston suburb of Dedham, Mass., where her 222 goals and 184 assists are the best-ever for a New England female prep player. Parsons also played for a boys' club team, the Boston Junior Terriers, from the age of 8 through her senior year of high school. She booked her "off" season with soccer and lacrosse, and argued strenuously with her parents before finally agreeing to their request to drop soccer her senior year.

Gunning for defending Olympic champion Canada is a pretty hefty psychic distance from trying to beat Milton Academy. Yet Parsons proved she wasn't easily overawed in her international debut last spring, scoring twice and logging an assist against China in the first round of the World Championships. She played in all five games of that event, in which the U.S. team defeated Canada in the final for the first time in nine tries.

"I didn't feel not ready,'' Parsons said of her emotions when she hit the ice against China. "I thought, 'We'll see what happens after the first shift.' After that, I was OK. I knew I could probably do it.''

That aplomb is partly due to the fact that she's most comfortable in motion. When Sarah was 2, a frazzled live-in babysitter told her parents that if the little girl didn't get outside, even in the dead of winter, "she's like a caged animal.''

"She tried ballet, but her ballet career was short -- too much standing around,'' said Joan Parsons, Sarah's mother and an executive for a corporate banking firm.

"We put her on figure skates on the pond in Dover when she was 3. Some of the kids were playing hockey. That was it -- she wanted a stick and a puck.''

Sarah was the only girl on her boys' club team and one of only two in the Terriers' full-check, high-level youth league. She held her own from the start, despite churlish behavior from some of the boys and their parents, according to Barry Armstrong, who coached her through junior high school.

"The fact that a girl could compete with them drove them crazy,'' Armstrong recalled. "Even some of the parents on our own team, I had to put in line. And it got worse as she got older. There were parents in the stands telling their 13-year-old sons to 'Kill the little [expletive].' It was horrible.''

Joan and husband Paul, who also have a 14-year-old son, Tyler, reassessed Sarah's participation every year and ultimately let her continue all the way through high school.

"At that point, she was so skilled and quick that it became a game of finesse for her,'' Joan Parsons said. "The interesting thing is that her only injuries were in girls' hockey.

"She had the energy to do it all and she told us she didn't want to play only with girls.''

Parsons weathered the difficult times and said she always felt strange when her teammates would drop their gloves and defend her honor, or simply her right to be in the crease. "Guys are so competitive, and they'd let little things get to them,'' she said. "Fights would start and I didn't know what to do.''

She always had a plan for the puck, though, "and if you were in the way, you were probably going to fall down,'' Armstrong said. "This is a kid who wanted to be successful and she wasn't going to be dissuaded.''

Going up against boys honed Parsons' agility and gave her confidence even when she gave up weight and inches to opposing players.

"She's not the biggest girl -- she's still skinny -- and she's not going to be a power forward, but she finds the creases and spaces in the lane,'' said two-time Olympic team defender Angela Ruggiero.

Smith, who is still deciding whether Parson fits best in the middle or as a wing, called her "more persistent than aggressive.''

"She's always involved in the action, and not afraid to take a bump to get something done,'' he said. "She probably doesn't see a lot of the goals she scores, because right after she scores them, she's down.''

In August, Smith shook up a core group that had been together through the last two Olympics, cutting iconic forward Cammi Granato and fellow veteran Shelley Looney. Forward Tricia Dunn-Luoma is the oldest player in camp now at 31. Parsons and her former high school teammate Helen Resor made the roster, but their places in Turin aren't assured until Smith names his final 20-player team in late December.

Unlike the 2002 lead-up, when players lived in dorms at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, N.Y., for months at a time, this squad will gather for weeklong camps there and shorter camps on the road before games, taking breaks in between. Older players like Ruggiero like the system better because it's not so confining, and Parsons says it's ideal for her, too.

"I'm not used to going away for long periods,'' she said.

Turin would be galaxies away from what she's used to, but then again, Parsons is always at home when she's in the vicinity of a net.

Bonnie DeSimone is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to ESPN.com.