With microphones and tape recorders flailing, hordes of reporters gather around Chanda Gunn, one of four goaltenders on the U.S. women's national hockey team. The sight makes Gunn so self-conscious that she suggests everyone sit cross-legged on the floor; it seems to make her less nervous for this interview in Colorado Springs, a few months before the 2006 Olympics in Turin.
At 5 feet 7 and 138 pounds, Gunn would hardly be pegged for an Olympic-caliber athlete, much less a goalie. But a radical transformation takes place when she dons her pads and face mask, turning this self-described "big dork" into a super-human backboard -- lightning quick and as flexible as Gumby as she squares her body against incoming shots, refusing to give up easy angles. The pucks never scare her, even the ones that sting most. In her gear and in goal, Gunn sheds her timid skin.
But boldness comes harder in street clothes and in conversation. Unless, of course, the topic is epilepsy. That's the one subject Gunn can talk about all day -- the neurological condition she developed in fourth grade and kept remarkably in check until her freshman year of college, when everything went awry and she lost her spot on Wisconsin's hockey team because of it.
"It's the one time that I actually do feel comfortable talking," Gunn says, "because I feel it can help other people."
Had her hockey career stopped midway through her freshman year, Gunn's story would have been remarkable: a Southern California girl who loved hockey more than anything in the world; begged for goalie gear for Christmas at 14; dragged her little brother out of bed each morning to fire pucks at her; and won a Division I scholarship, never telling Wisconsin officials she had epilepsy for fear they'd reject her.
But at 25, Gunn continues to fend off more than her share of life's hurdles and hockey pucks. Her latest challenge: earning a spot on the 2006 U.S. Olympic team. Only two goaltenders will make the national team cut; the roster will be announced late this month , around the time the squad wraps up its 11-city, pre-Olympic exhibition tour.
Gunn made an inspired case for herself Sunday in Columbus, Ohio, where she stopped 26 shots and fended off all four attempts in a shootout to clinch a 2-1 victory over Canada that snapped a six-game losing streak to the United States' chief rival. The teams face off again tonight in Chicago.
Whether or not Gunn makes the 2006 Olympic team, the U.S. women will head to Turin with lofty expectations, intent on reclaiming the gold medal they won at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, where women's hockey made its Olympic debut, then let slip to Canada at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.
"It's one of the biggest rivalries in women's sports," says two-time Olympian Angela Ruggiero, 25. "I live to play Canada. That's when all the little things really count -- all the little things you did in the gym, and the extra things you've done on the ice."
Women hockey's has come a long way in recent decades, with fledgling teams forming in the United States after the passage of Title IX in 1972. Its elevation to Olympic status triggered another growth spurt, with participation rates leaping roughly 10 percent each Olympic year. The boom in numbers has raised the caliber of play. One indictor: Two-time Olympian Cammi Granato, the face of U.S. women's hockey, missed the cut for the U.S. national team, which means she's not in the pool of prospective Olympians for 2006.
"Other players had eclipsed her abilities," says Ben Smith, coach of the U.S. women's team.
The United States is hardly alone in minting better women's hockey players. Sweden and Finland have raised their games, as well, and figure to be in the mix for medals in Turin.
Gunn's evolution to world-class hockey player mirrors the emergence of the women's game. It started with an obsession and grew through grit and determination in the face of barriers at every turn.
An avid Los Angeles Kings fan, Gunn was 14 and reading an article about Tony Granato when her world turned upside down. Granato mentioned that his sister played hockey at Providence College, and with that simple aside, Gunn was no longer alone.
"It was the first time I really opened my eyes to any other girls playing," Gunn recalls, her eyes twinkling. "It was like, 'Wow! She's so cool!' "
From that day on, she wrote Cammi Granato a letter every day for four years, detailing how many shots she had stopped that day and how many goals she had let in; what she had done at school and what she had eaten for breakfast. She got videotapes of Providence games to watch Cammi play. She mailed her a blue hat with an orange "21" on it. And she finally got to see her in person at the 1996 Pacific Rim Tournament as a reward for getting good grades. Afterward, she got her autograph -- the first of dozens of Cammi Granato autographs she eventually collected.
"I don't think I spoke," Gunn recalls, laughing. "I don't think I could remember my name. I was looking down at the ground, real nervous."
All the time, Gunn was honing her own game at the skating rink her father owned in Huntington Beach, Calif.
Her epilepsy was in control with the help of a carefully regulated diet, plenty of rest and the drug Depakote, which sharply limited her seizures. But she and her doctors underestimated the tumult college would bring. The seizures returned, sometimes several in one day. She started cycling in and out of the hospital as doctors struggled to adjust her treatment and was forced to withdraw from college on Dec. 1. Three months passed before she was healthy enough to ease back onto the ice. By fall she felt ready to return to Wisconsin only to get a phone call from her coach to inform her she had lost her spot on the team.
So Gunn launched a letter-writing campaign to hockey-playing schools across the country and soon found she wasn't such a hot commodity. "Not many colleges were in the market for a goalie who had been in and out of competition for a year or so, and in and out of the hospital," Gunn recalls. "It wasn't a good selling point of my career."
Finally, Northeastern extended a modest offer. She'd have to pay her own way, and she'd have to negotiate the NCAA's bureaucratic maze for getting herself cleared as a transfer. If she did that, she could walk on as a backup.
Gunn thrived at Northeastern, finishing with a degree in athletic training and a minor in religious studies. She founded an inner-city hockey program for Boston area youngsters. She won the NCAA's sportswoman of the year award as a senior. And on the ice, she became the school's all-time leader in career saves (2,447) and save percentage (.938).
"She's unreal," says Kristin King, 26, a Dartmouth graduate and forward on the national team. "I've learned so much humility from her. She is on the ice at least 20 minutes early every practice to work on things she needs to work on. She's continually trying to get better. She's so gentle and caring off the ice. But it's like she's another person when she gets on the ice. She wants to win so badly."