Field hockey team hopes unity leads to Athens

When its women's national team failed to qualify for the Olympics in 2000 -- the second time that had happened in eight years -- U.S. Field Hockey needed little further evidence that its so-called system was broken.

Experience was not the issue because a pool of players had faced tough international competition. The flaw was a bit subtler. The team was like a group of close relatives: It was generally happy to be together, and easily picked up where it left off, despite being too often separated.

In 2001, talks ensued with City of Virginia Beach, Va., officials the year after the team fell one position short of a required top-five finish in the Sydney Olympic qualifying tournament. The city offered to form a partnership toward establishing a $3 million national training center for field hockey.

The sport's national governing body took the deal. For the first time since before the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, the national team's core players would live and work in the same community. The '96 team -- out of the medals but respectably fifth in the Olympic tournament -- had trained continuously for a year in Atlanta.

"Getting our own training center in Virginia Beach has made a night-and-day difference," said Tracey Fuchs, the team's senior member, at age 37, who played on the USA's 1988 and '96 Olympic teams.

If Fuchs is to become a three-time Olympian, she and her teammates will have to channel all of that newfound unity into results during this week's qualifying tournament for the 2004 Athens Games. The top five finishers in the tournament near Auckland, New Zealand, will join a number of world powers that already qualified, including top-rated Argentina, Australia, the Netherlands and China -- the only team that stood between the U.S. and the Sydney Games four years ago. Australia won the Olympic title on home soil in 2000, defending its 1996 Olympic gold.

Team USA, coached by Old Dominion University's Beth Anders, began its qualifying quest this week with an opening loss to Japan, 3-1, followed by a reassuring 1-1 tie with South Korea and then a 6-0 victory over winless Russia on Tuesday. Spain, also in the same qualifying pool, is the U.S. opponent on Wednesday.

The path ahead is challenging for the U.S. women, currently 10th in the international federation's world rankings, and ninth in the most important non-Olympic event since Sydney, the 2002 World Cup. Of the three other teams sharing this week's pool with the U.S., only Japan finished lower (10th) in the World Cup than the Americans.

The memory of finishing one spot shy of reaching the Sydney Games has been a powerful fuel for the veteran U.S. team, with more than half of the roster sticking around to make a run at Athens.

"The year after (in 2001), it was a haunting memory," said team captain Katie Beach, 29, a 1996 Olympian and U.S. field hockey's athlete of the year in 2003. "Now, it's motivating. We just froze in 2000 (in the crushing loss to China). We felt the pressure. Now we know how to handle it. We've trained ourselves to talk about it."

Veteran goalkeeper Peggy Storrar, 33, a national team member since 1995 and a '96 Olympic team alternate, said she is convinced the American presence will be more formidable because of the team's in-residency training approach. Competing for a spot on the team became a full-time job, she said, "but we go to work in sweat clothes and we don't have to take a shower first."

Many have put other interests aside, or in secondary status, to pursue the itch of playing field hockey and parading into the opening ceremony of an Olympic Games in Greece, the birthplace of the modern Olympic era. Team members have a variety of undergraduate degrees from acclaimed East Coast institutions, including Maryland, North Carolina and Old Dominion, field hockey hotbeds. Storrar has worked as a botanist. Beach and her spouse formed a non-profit organization to help public libraries replace dated books and other educational materials.

But, to chase the dream, they are maintaining hectic schedules balanced between fitness, training, travel for competition, and wage earning to pay the bills. Ten national team members work limited hours at Virginia Beach area retail stores of The Home Depot, a U.S. Olympic Committee sponsor that hires athletes to flexible schedules through the Olympic Job Opportunities Program (OJOP).

"We average about 20 hours a week," said Fuchs, who works in the outdoor gardening department. "We try to get in our hours on the weekends."

More than ever before, elite female players are accustomed to stability -- income and a modern training site to call home. This week, they'll learn if Team USA has the tools to build a tradition of international success on the other side of the planet.

"I wouldn't say we are obsessed, but I love what I do, I love the traveling, and it's great to basically workout for a living," Beach said last week from Auckland. "We consider ourselves one of the top conditioned teams in the world."

Steve Woodward is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.