TAMPA — Her Olympic dream was years in the making, but even when Haley Skarupa finally received the long-awaited news, it took some time to process. For months, her journey felt like it was both pointed in the right direction and filled with trap doors.
"It was sort of a whirlwind. I didn't know what to feel at the time," she said. "It was crazy. Thinking back to a few months ago, did I think I'd be here? It was a very surreal moment for sure."
Skarupa was born in Washington, grew up in Rockville, attended college in Boston and is now slated to represent the U.S. women's hockey team at the PyeongChang Winter Games, which begin next month. She was one of the last two players officially added to the squad this month after spending months on the roster bubble, unsure whether she was preparing herself for the Olympics or only her teammates.
The 24-year-old forward was one of the 42 players who traveled to Florida in late April for the program's selection camp, all vying for one of 23 roster spots. Even though Skarupa had been part of the American team that won gold at each of the past three world championships, she was left off the national team roster and returned to the Boston area in early May, uncertain about her future.
"I was just disappointed, like, I didn't know what to do next," she said. "I needed to take the summer to regroup and see what I wanted to do. Should I pursue a career, get a job, move on? I didn't know."
Skarupa had been around the sport her entire life. Her brother, Dylan, was three years older and helped introduce her to hockey. She played on boys' teams until she was 12 and there were enough all-girls teams in the area. She starred with the Washington Pride club teams, showcasing herself as a natural scorer with a sixth sense for the net.
"When we saw her play, we knew she would come into Boston College and immediately make an impact," said Katie Crowley, her college coach.
At Boston College, Skarupa proved to be one of the school's best forwards ever and helped lead the team to an undefeated regular season during her senior year. But the Olympics were always her ultimate goal, and suddenly, just one year removed from college, she'd missed the cut and her future felt in doubt.
Skarupa was working for a production company in downtown Boston, and though she'd still regularly hit the gym over the summer, she stayed off the ice for nearly four months.
"She did everything she could do. She had done everything you could expect of her," said Kush Sidhu, the Pride founder and longtime coach. "I don't think Haley was really ready to make that decision in May. . . . It might've been a good thing for her just to let her body take a break, have some time to rest and reassess what's important to her so when the opportunity came around again, she was in a place where she was ready to give it another shot."
Skarupa signed with the Boston Pride of the National Women's Hockey League. She had never fallen off the national team radar, though, and was called to Florida twice to work out with the U.S. team. These stints turned into unofficial tryouts, and she practiced with the team daily, even though she wasn't technically part of the squad.
"I was just taking it day by day . . . just seeing what happened," Skarupa said. "I tried not to think too much about all the different scenarios."
When she was called back to Florida on Nov. 27, she was one of 26 players in camp. She knew that only 23 would be headed for South Korea in February, and most of those spots were spoken for. They had all been living together in Wesley Chapel, a suburb north of Tampa, and working on team chemistry since August. Skarupa was tossed into the mix and had no idea whether there would be room for her.
"It's so hard to be in the situation that Haley was in," said Crowley, herself a three-time Olympian. "I think the biggest thing that Haley was able to do was just kind of put her head down and keep on working. . . . I'm so proud of her for that because she could have said no. She could have been so upset or angry and decided not to fight for that spot. But she didn't."
Finally, after a month of working out with the team every day, Skarupa received word in late December that she, too, would be PyeongChang-bound. Team officials made the late decision to cut a pair of veterans — forward Alex Carpenter and defenseman Megan Bozek — from the 2014 team that won silver in Sochi. Skarupa was one of 13 forwards to make the final roster and will probably find herself skating on the third or fourth line in PyeongChang next month.
Because she had played alongside many of the players for years, the celebration wasn't limited to Skarupa and her family back in Rockville. Her teammates say that Skarupa had always felt like a key part of the team, even if she wasn't formally added until Jan. 1.
"She's just grateful for every chance she gets and wants to make this team better any way she can," said Lee Stecklein, a defenseman prepping for her second Olympics. "It's so exciting to see it work out for her because she deserves it so much."
"She's someone you want on your team," said Amanda Pelkey, a forward who has played with Skarupa on national teams for nearly a decade. "I think that's a cliche thing to say, but she's a person that when she's around, she's keeping us laughing all the time. She brings a lot of light to our team."