Former University of Maryland field hockey star Katie O’Donnell set her sights on the 2012 Summer Games the day she walked out of the office of Team USA Coach Lee Bodimeade in the spring of 2008, bruised with the news she had just received:
Despite emerging as one of the sport’s hottest stars at 16, she did not make the final cut for the U.S. Olympic team that competed that summer in Beijing.
“At first I was upset,” O’Donnell said during a conference call Monday. “Then I was angry. Then there was determination.”
O’Donnell took a major step toward realizing her Olympic dream during the recent Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, where the U.S. team stunned world champion Argentina to capture the gold medal — its first ever in the tournament. With the finish, the Americans claimed an automatic berth in the 2012 Olympics in London.
O’Donnell, 22, scored one goal in the 4-2 victory in front of a vocal cluster of U.S. fans that chanted “USA! USA!” in the waning minutes. The defeat of the top-ranked Argentines was considered an incredible result for the 13th-ranked Americans, who had finished eighth in the 2008 Olympic tournament.
“Going into the game, everybody off the field didn’t really believe in us,” said O’Donnell, a native of Norristown, Pa. But “every single person on our team had no doubt. . . . It was a weird feeling . . . everyone did their part to make it happen.
“The celebration was amazing. Having the whole crowd going wild, having your parents cheering, you could see them crying in the stands. The experience was unforgettable.”
Had the U.S. team not won gold, it would have had to travel to a do-or-die Olympic qualifying tournament in Belgium, Japan or India in the coming months. Instead, the team will play a series of low-pressure international tune-ups leading up to London, and O’Donnell will concentrate on securing her spot on the final roster.
O’Donnell had taken off the spring semester of her freshman year at Maryland to try to make the cut for Beijing, but instead of using the time to showcase her skills, she recalled, she got bogged down in the high stakes and simply underperformed.
“I was a little timid at the time,” she said. “I was so worried about making mistakes that things weren’t good for me,” O’Donnell said. “This time, I’m going to prepare the right way mentally — with the help of my teammates and family and friends — and take the opportunity and achieve my goal, hopefully.”
O’Donnell led the Terrapins to two national titles and twice earned the Honda Sports Award as the nation’s top field hockey player. Last fall, she became the first field hockey player to be named Sportswoman of the Year by the Women’s Sports Foundation.
None of those honors, however, would compare to an Olympic medal.
“We all want to be standing on the podium at the Olympics,” O’Donnell said. “We’re a pretty selfless group. We don’t really put ourselves above our team. . . . We look forward to stepping on the field for every game next year.”