Cahow one of American 2010 hopefuls

There are less than six months until the 2010 Winter Olympics begin in Vancouver, but Caitlin Cahow doesn't need any milestone dates to remind her that the Games are around the corner.

She thinks about it daily.

"I wake up every day of my life ... now, tomorrow, six months ago ... that I have an opportunity to be a U.S. Olympian," said Cahow, a member of the U.S. women's hockey team that earned a bronze medal at the 2006 Olympic Games in Torino. "There's an Olympic slogan that says, 'It's not every four years; it's every day.' That's really true."

This week, however, she is reminded of that fact even more. She is one of 41 players who have gathered in Blaine, Minn., for the USA Women's Hockey National Festival and are vying for one of 21 spots on the 2010 U.S. Olympic team. The team will be announced Monday and a 23-player squad will play in 10 exhibition games beginning in September. Twenty-one players will go to Vancouver.

The women will practice and scrimmage throughout the weekend. Cahow is among the veteran players who spend the year in Blaine as part of the national team's residency program, but even she is living in a dorm room like all of the other players.

"Our coach wanted all of us in the dorms for camp so it's a fair testing environment for everyone," said Cahow.

The defenseman remembers what it was like four years ago when she arrived at her first Olympic tryout camp. It was the first time she donned a USA uniform. On Tuesday, before the team had its first meeting at the training camp, she and teammates Sarah Parsons and Helen Resor talked about that experience. Cahow and Resor were both 20 when they played on the Olympic team in 2006; Parsons was 18.

"We were the young ones on the team," Cahow said. "The trial process was terrifying the first time around. I was nervous, but so excited. I was just thrilled to play hockey with [Olympic gold medalist] Cammi Granato for a week. It was heaven."

Cahow came to camp this time around as a 24-year-old Harvard graduate who took her LSATs -- the entrance exam for law school -- in June. (She is applying to law schools and plans to enroll in the fall of 2010.)

She no longer is starry-eyed around the team's stars, and refers to U.S. (and former Harvard) teammate Angela Ruggiero, who has a shot at her fourth trip to the Olympic Games in 2010, as her best friend. She even joked that the two would make for entertaining reality TV. Ruggiero, for one, already had experience with that on Donald Trump's "The Apprentice."

"Angela and I would be great on 'Amazing Race,'" Cahow said. "We would fight all the time, but we would be a good team. People would tune in to watch us."

Joking aside, Cahow knows she is at camp this week with serious business at hand. Even though she was on the U.S. team and scored two goals in the gold-medal game to beat Canada 4-1 in April at the world championships in Finland, she knows she now has to prove herself again.

"When you develop as a player, especially at the elite level, you tend to nit-pick yourself," Cahow said. "There's a daunting fear of failure."

Cahow said one thing that has eased that fear is having coach Mark Johnson at the helm. A member of the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" Olympic gold-medal squad in Lake Placid, N.Y., Johnson has developed a reputation among his players as a players' coach, the type of guy who gives his players freedom on the ice to take chances.

Cahow, for one, started her career as a forward, but has played on defense much of her time with the national team. Yet when an injury left the team short up front, Johnson asked Cahow to play at forward again. She even scored in that position during the opening shift of the gold-medal game at the world championships (24 seconds into the game) and then Johnson had her play back on defense later in the game. She also scored a power-play goal.

The United States women have won the last two world titles, with both gold-medal games coming against rival Canada. The American women might have the momentum, but they have a big chip on their shoulder pads after taking a silver to Canada in 2002 (on U.S. soil at Salt Lake City) and then a bronze in 2006 in Torino. The one thing going for the Americans is the pressure will be on the Canadian women, who hail from a country where kids practically are born wearing skates.

"We can't make the mistake we made at the last Olympics," said Michele Amidon, who heads USA Hockey's women's operations. "We're very excited for the sport of hockey [at the Olympics]. Vancouver will probably have the best venues, and all of the games are going to be sold out. It will be the No. 1 sport to be covered. We'll be the underdog there."

Ever since Torino, the direction of U.S. women's hockey has made major strides. Amidon, who is in her third year as the women's director, helped establish a residency program in Blaine. The first year, there were only about 10 players there. The second year, there were about 17. Now, many women have homes, condos and apartments in Blaine. Cahow just signed a two-year lease.

Another big change is that the women's under-18 team is also in Blaine this week. Those players are preparing for the 2009 women's under-18 series from Aug. 24 to 27 in Calgary, Alberta.

"It's cool to have the young guys around," said Cahow, who coached some of those under-18 players in Boston. "I am so excited with the advent of the U-18 program. Some of these girls have worn that USA jersey for a few years now. That really is a huge advantage."

Cahow had dinner with one of those young players, forward Brianna Decker, a Wisconsin native who turned 18 in May and was a member of the 2008 U.S. select team that beat Canada at the Four Nations Cup.

"She will get to know us, the members of the national team as people and as teammates," Cahow said. "That's a huge credit to USA Hockey."

In addition to Cahow, the U.S. women's team likely will include several veterans: Ruggiero and Jenny Potter, who both captured Olympic gold medals in 1998 in Nagano, and two-time Olympians Natalie Darwitz and Julie Chu. Among the younger players expected to make the cut are Hilary Knight, who plays for Johnson at Wisconsin and was one of the top players on the national team at the 2009 world championships, and goaltender Jessie Vetter, who won the 2009 Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award as the top women's college hockey player.

Cahow, for one, is especially interested in generating more interest in the sport for the next generation. Growing up in Connecticut, Cahow never imagined she would someday get a chance to play in one Olympic Games, let alone have the opportunity to play in more. According to Amidon, 48,000 girls between the ages of 4 and 19 are playing hockey and as of last year, more than 60,000 women 19 and older are playing. The goal is for the Olympics to showcase the sport.

When Cahow and Amidon were younger, such a thought was unthinkable. Amidon was a Hartford Whalers fan and recalls asking Gordie Howe for his autograph in the early 1980s. "But playing at that level?" Amidon said. "I never really thought about it. It just didn't exist."

Cahow distinctly recalls idolizing NHL defenseman Brian Leetch, who was a star with the New York Rangers when she was young. "I thought he was the cat's meow," Cahow said.

She would often pretend she was Leetch when playing street hockey with one of her best buddies, a boy. Although this friend had never had any problems with Cahow pretending to be an NHL player before, one day he informed her she couldn't ever play in the NHL because she was a girl. That didn't go over well.

"I really did think I'd be in the NHL one day," Cahow said. "I was so mad that I just punched him."

He survived the hit, and the two remain close friends. She hasn't made it to the NHL -- yet. But she has made it to the Olympic Games, and on Monday, she will find out if she's on track to make the American squad again.

"I found out in 1998 that I didn't need to be Brian Leetch," Cahow said. "I could be Angela Ruggiero."

Amy Rosewater, a freelance writer based in Baltimore, is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.