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For Women, Goals Didn't Come Easy

By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, February 9, 1998; Page C1

Michael Wilbon

The stories right now are a lot more compelling than the hockey being played. To dwell on the competition at this point would be so petty, and would miss the larger point of how these women have made Olympic hockey possible in the first place.

Sarah Tueting is as good a place as any to start. She was studying neurobiology at Dartmouth when she got a chance to try out for the first U.S. women's Olympic team. When she was a kid she learned how to play the cello, the piano, and hockey.

When she was 5, growing up in suburban Chicago, Tueting would follow her brother, Jonathan, to the rink to watch his games. Her parents noticed her fascination with the goaltender. She remembers his name to this day: Neil Carlstad. Whenever Neil switched ends of the ice for the next period, Sarah would switch ends, too. And on the way home she'd ask her parents questions about Neil. So there was only one thing for her parents to conclude.

Sarah had a crush on the goalie.

They couldn't fathom that it was goaltending that Sarah had a crush on.

"We bought a pair of used pads," she recalled, "and I slept with them. I even wore them around on Halloween."

Neil Carlstad, wherever he is, ought to be proud because he helped inspire the woman who is now on leave from Dartmouth, starting in goal for the United States.

Lisa Brown-Miller, a forward from Michigan, got married on Aug. 19, 1995, and the next day left for training camp in Lake Placid, N.Y., canceling her honeymoon in Alaska. The honeymoon remains on hold.

Colleen Coyne's family home in Massachusetts burned down in August, and she wanted to be with her folks to help them rebuild their lives, but they told her they wouldn't let her miss out on pursuing a spot on this team.

Vicki Movsessian graduated magna cum laude from Providence in 1994, landed a great job with Prudential in Boston, then said, "See ya" to train full time.

A.J. Mleczko was named captain for her senior year at Harvard but left school to try out for the team. She could have accepted a stipend from the U.S. Olympic Committee but decided not to because she wanted to retain her amateur status and finish her career at Harvard. She never slept in her Isuzu, but she says she "lived out of it." Clothes folded neatly on the back seat, hockey gear way in the back. "It was a little stinky," she says now. She slept on a lot of sofas, shared a bed with her sister at times because money was tight.

"People have put their lives on hold," Tueting said Sunday night after getting credit for a tournament-opening shutout of China. "They've given up family, friends, school, relationships."

"We appreciate each other's sacrifices," Mleczko said. "We don't talk about it because we don't need to. We all know it. You asked me how it feels to be the first women to play hockey in the Olympics? I just got chills thinking about it. We've trained so hard. . . . I almost don't want to think about it. I grew up idolizing Gretzky, Brian Leetch. . . . I wanted to be a New York Ranger. Stepping on that ice tonight helped make so many things worth the effort we put in. Everybody on our team has gone through life hearing, 'Hockey's a boy's sport. What are you doing here?' I went home one day and told my mom I wanted to be called A.J. I cut my hair. I wanted to be a boy. I think, subconsciously, we [avenged] all the taunts and all the jeers."

A.J.'s first name, you should know, is Allison. But you can't be Allison when you're trying to play on the boys junior hockey team. So you become A.J. A woman named Kelly O'Leary, who was a late cut from this team but a six-time member of the U.S. women's national team, played under the name "Kevin" when she was growing up in Massachusetts because her boys team played in a tournament in Quebec that didn't allow girls. So many of them, probably most of them, pinned up their hair and pressed on.

See, these players can't get bogged down with the state of competition of women's hockey just yet. You want the scouting report of the Olympic tournament? Only three countries can really play: Canada, the U.S. and Finland. On the first day of play, Canada beat Japan, 13-0; Finland beat Sweden, 6-0; and the U.S. beat China, 5-0. Sweden is big and slow. Japan is small and slow. If this were only about sporting entertainment, the U.S. and Canada could just play a best-of-seven series and send everybody else home. Mleczko says, "Look at our forearms, they're littler. They can't shoot a puck as hard as the men." But this isn't about quality of play yet, as much as it is about building something from the ground up. "To have worked for something that was such a distant dream," Tueting said. "When I was 3 years old my parents tried to put figure skates on me and I screamed and cried. I wouldn't touch the white skates. I wanted hockey skates."

These are things to which men don't give much thought. Our leagues, from pee wee to the majors, have been thriving for decades. We don't think about the need for them to grow or evolve. Pop Warner to the NFL, every step along the way is well worn and you never have reason to doubt its very existence. But the women playing Olympic hockey for the first time have never had the luxury of presumption. They don't do this for a pro career or a deal from Nike or, in some cases, even a stipend. "I love the NHL players," Mleczko said, "but we are the true amateurs."

See, there's no pot of gold at the end of this rainbow. There's just the rainbow. It's women's basketball 25 years ago. Nobody's got next. "When those four U.S. women's teams won gold medals in Atlanta," Mleczko said, speaking of basketball, soccer, softball and gymnastics, "they set up a great little coattail for us to ride on. This is our foot in the door. These are my dreams."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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