Her boss knew. Some co-workers and maybe a few of the regulars did, too. But it’s safe to say most passed through the small coffee shop in Northwest Washington, ordered their Americanos and macchiatos and had no clue the smiley barista was bound for the Olympics. And they surely would have never guessed that Jessica Lutz — born in the United States, raised in Rockville, educated in Connecticut — would be representing a country 5,000 miles away.
Lutz fell in love with ice hockey at a young age, learning to skate and play at rinks around the Washington area, eventually earning a spot on the University of Connecticut team. In recent months, she’s been playing with a men’s team in a league out of Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington. But when the Olympic women’s ice hockey tournament begins in Sochi on Saturday, Lutz, 24, will be skating for Switzerland.
“I think we have a good team,” she said recently, following a long training day in Switzerland. “I’m so excited to get on the ice in Sochi.”
Lutz’s father, Ernst, was born in Switzerland. He moved to the Washington area more than 30 years ago, found a wife, had three daughters. Jessica Lutz’s dual citizenship afforded her the opportunity to compete for Switzerland — as long as she established residency there for at least consecutive years. So knowing the Sochi Games were sneaking up, Lutz raced through her studies, graduated a year early and immediately moved overseas. She stayed in Switzerland for nearly three years before moving back to Washington last spring. By day, she served up lattes at the Coffee Bar on S Street NW near 14th.
“My chances — it wasn’t a realistic goal for me to play with the U.S. national team,” she said. “There’s so many more girls who play in the U.S., so it’s so much more competitive to get a spot on the team. I knew my chances in Switzerland were a lot better.”
At U-Conn., Lutz was exposed to a more competitive brand of hockey and as an underclassman had to make the most of her limited ice time.
“But she always stayed after practice and did all the work off the ice,” said Huskies assistant coach Jaclyn Hawkins, who played alongside Lutz for a season before joining the coaching staff. “I could see lots of potential in her because of her work ethic alone.”
There are about 8 million people in Switzerland, similar to the combined population of the Washington and Baltimore metro areas. The U.S. team is packed with talent and is considered a favorite to win gold at these Olympics. The United States and Canada square off in the finals of nearly every international tournament and account for all Olympic gold medals since women’s ice hockey was added to the menu of winter sports in 1998.
Lutz skated with Switzerland last year in the world championships, in which the Swiss were slotted in the same group as the United States. The U.S. team topped Switzerland, 5-0, early in the tournament and eventually beat Canada to win gold.
Lutz’s Swiss team will face the United States next Monday in what will be the second Olympic game for each country.
“I don’t think it’s weird at all, Lutz said. “If anything, I’d really love to score against them.”
Lutz was “always a very athletic child,” says her mother, Marcella, and was first introduced to ice hockey at age 5 when she was invited to watch a friend’s game. She told her parents she wanted to play.
“At the time she expressed an interest, I didn’t think that this was a sport for girls,” said Ernst Lutz, an agricultural economist at the World Bank. “But my thinking had to be changed over time, I guess.”
Lutz’s parents couldn’t find any girls’ programs in the area for her age group. They signed her up instead for skating lessons, not sure how long she’d stick with the ice. “I don’t know if they were just trying to get it out of my system or what,” Lutz says with a laugh.
At 7, she found an instructional program where she finally got to use a stick and finally joined a team at age 9, an all-girls squad that played against teams consisting exclusively of boys. As she began high school at Washington Christian Academy, a small private school located at the time in Silver Spring, Lutz started playing with a traveling team, eager to catch the eye of college recruiters. The all-girls team traversed the nation — as far as Alaska — to play against some of the nation’s top squads.
Lutz eventually played three years at Connecticut, scoring four goals and tallying 13 assists in 95 games. She was contributing more as a junior but still opted to graduate early and begin a career overseas rather than play out a senior season with the Huskies.
Playing in Switzerland, the forward saw increased ice time and watched her play steadily improve. On and off the ice, Lutz and her teammates rely on a shared language, usually English or German.
“We can communicate the basics. It’s a little more of an obstacle in getting to know people or really connecting with them,” she said.
While her parents relocated to Switzerland in 2012, Lutz opted to return to Washington last spring. Her degree — allied health sciences — wasn’t recognized around Switzerland, which meant she couldn’t continue her studies or find relevant work. While there wasn’t a high-level women’s team to help prep for the Olympics, the recreational men’s team out of Arlington proved beneficial.
“It was a challenge because they’re stronger and faster,” she said of the men’s team, Ronin.
No matter how the Swiss squad fares in Sochi, Lutz plans to spend a week after the Winter Games with her family in Switzerland before returning to Washington. She hopes to begin a full-time nursing program this summer and says she’s not sure what her hockey future holds.
“In the end, I guess you’d say I feel more at home in the U.S.,” she said. “That’s where I lived most of my life, so it makes sense.”