MANHEIM, Pa. — The giant, inflated practice bubble and artificial-turf field loom as a jarring punctuation mark in the rolling farmland of Lancaster County. But here, amid the silos, church steeples and fertile soil of south-central Pennsylvania, the U.S. women’s field hockey team is preparing for the Rio Olympics.
After a last-place result at the 2012 London Games, the U.S. squad relocated its training base from Chula Vista, Calif., abandoning sun-kissed weather and easy access to San Diego’s beaches and night life for this farming community of 4,800, just northwest of Lancaster. And, in doing so, it came home.
Lancaster County may be the agricultural heart of Pennsylvania, but field hockey also has a deep taproot in the region, where it’s played with passion from elementary school on. That largely explains why two-thirds of the U.S. women’s field hockey team is from Pennsylvania or neighboring New Jersey.
It’s also why residents of Lancaster County have adopted the squad’s road to Rio as their journey, too — one they’re helping pave with uncommon resourcefulness and pride.
Jerri Anne Johnson, 62, a retiree who lives just a few miles from the team’s training base at Manheim’s massive Spooky Nook Sports complex, has opened her four-bedroom home to team members in need of housing. Her husband makes sure their cars’ tires are filled with air, while she makes sure they have essentials such as Epsom salts for healing baths, quinoa, almond butter and a blender to whip up vegetable-laden smoothies.
Area dentist Rick Knowlton cares for the players’ teeth, including custom-fitted mouth guards that are regarded as essential in this high-velocity sport. And Evolution Power Yoga’s Lancaster studio sends instructors to the training complex to lead players in twice-weekly classes focused on flexibility and restoration.
“Lancaster really is the mothership area for field hockey,” says Gabi Nolt, who coaches field hockey at York College and manages the Lancaster studio, which recently donated the proceeds of its weekly community fundraiser to the field hockey team.
For superstar Olympians — members of USA Basketball, for example, or celebrated champions such as Serena Williams and Ryan Lochte — fundraising for Rio isn’t a concern. But it’s an imperative for the U.S. women’s field hockey team, which can’t get to Rio without private donations. The USOC bankrolls the travel for the 16 players who will be named to the Olympic team and two staff members. But the squad must pay expenses for two alternate athletes and three other staff members.
That’s why Johnson came up with the idea of selling paper “bricks” — gold, silver or bronze, depending on the donation — on which supporters could write a message to the squad and help pave their Road to Rio. With less than 70 days before the United States’ Aug. 6 opening match against Argentina, the campaign was short of its $75,000 goal. But sentiments on the bricks, which are tacked on the team’s locker-room wall, provide a terrific morale boost.
“You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take!” reads one brick.
“KICK A$$!” urges the one bought by USA Volleyball.
And from Emma, scribbled in a child’s hand: “Play your hearts out but don’t die!”
The homegrown outpouring is a reflection not only of central Pennsylvania’s love of field hockey but also of a communal spirit that’s rooted deep in the region’s culture. It’s how the Amish and Mennonites who settled in Lancaster County traditionally raise barns and stitch quilts, with individuals lending whatever skill and expertise they have to help a neighbor’s cause.
The field hockey players repay the community, in turn, as frequent visitors to local schools and supporters of Girls on the Run, a charitable group that promotes healthy habits and self-esteem among third- to eighth-graders.
The field hockey team turned out in force for last fall’s Girls on the Run 5K, the twice-yearly capstone event of the 10-week training session, in which running, walking or a hybrid of the two are celebrated equally. After leading the roughly 1,200 girls in pre-race stretches, the athletes took up posts along the route to cheer them toward the finish, while U.S. Coach Craig Parnham issued the starting command from atop a ladder, megaphone in hand.
“If it takes a village to raise a baby, it takes a community — a big community — to take a team to the Olympics,” explains two-time Olympian and team captain Lauren Crandall, 31, a native of Doylestown, Pa. “And to be role models for a community where they understand what field hockey is, and they appreciate what we do, is a big opportunity for us.”
Central Pennsylvania’s passion for field hockey stands in sharp contrast to the general puzzlement about the sport in Southern California. Here, it’s not uncommon for players to be recognized while running errands. Even their exhibition matches routinely sell out.
The sport has a storied history in Pennsylvania, introduced in 1901 by Britain’s Constance Applebee, who served for decades as Bryn Mawr College’s field hockey coach. But the reason it took hold in the state’s central region, Crandall believes, is because of the blue-collar character of the residents and their tradition of passing down their values to the next generation.
“It’s that type of person, with a hard work ethic and that family orientation, that creates the perfect breeding ground for field hockey,” Crandall said.
The team’s move to Pennsylvania was part of a major overhaul of U.S. women’s field hockey after the squad failed to advance out of pool play at the London Olympics, finishing 12th in the 12-nation field. The team brought in Parnham, a member of Britain’s coaching staff. Rather than import a raft of rules and regimens, Parnham urged players to set their own team goal.
And they set a bold one, recalled striker Michelle Vittese, a Virginia graduate and native of Cherry Hill, N.J.: to be No. 1 in the world.
A major culture change followed, players say, marked by mutual support, fierce work ethic, personal sacrifice and accountability to one another.
It was evident in the practices leading up to a May 14 exhibition match against Chile, the first in a three-game series. After the group jogged around the turf field, which had been watered to speed up the ball’s movement, the women threw themselves into the stretching exercises, calisthenics and shooting drills. Once the scrimmaging started, each ran full-out, whether on the ball or well away from it.
With a five-woman leadership council setting the tone, the squad has become entirely self-policing, with little for Parnham to do, he claims, but remind them on occasion of the goal they set. With it, the random requests for a day off to attend a wedding or family function disappeared.
“They set the boundaries; they drive the standards,” Parnham said. “It’s amazing, the power of a team and the power of a culture when it is driven from within.”
Johnson vouches for it, stunned by the commitment of the athletes who have stayed with her.
“They are the girls every mother wants,” Johnson said. “There’s no loud music. No boys over. They can’t drink. And they’re grateful for everything you do for them.”
No doubt, for young women in their 20s, the Spartan lifestyle, regimented diet and commitment to live in rural Pennsylvania for four or eight years at a stretch — all for a chance at making an Olympic team — represents a sacrifice.
Vittese acknowledges as much. She’s in bed by 9:30 p.m. and up at 7 a.m. each day. She meticulously plans out each meal. And she weighs each personal decision against how it will affect her performance and whether it will result in extra work for her teammates, should she stray. Still, she prefers not to call it a “sacrifice.”
“I choose this,” Vittese said, “because of what it means and because of what it means to be part of something that is bigger than anything I could create on my own.”
The three-match series against Chile is the squad’s final stateside tuneup before heading to London in June for the Champions Cup. The Americans will enter the tournament ranked seventh in the world and will face the top-ranked Netherlands and No. 2 Argentina, as well as perennial powers Australia, New Zealand and Britain.
With their opening match falling on the same day that Girls on the Run held its spring 5K, the field hockey players couldn’t attend. So instead, the 1,000-plus girls taking part filmed a videotaped message to the team as a send-off for Rio, shouting and screeching “Go, USA!” en masse.
Then they took off on a race of their own, with glitter and Day-Glo colors sprayed in their hair, chiffon tutus atop paisley running tights and squeals and giggles in their wake, as parents, siblings, neighbors and Parnham, representing the team, cheered.
That evening, many of the same girls showed up for the match against Chile still sporting their festive race-day attire. To their delight, a thunderstorm delayed the 7:30 p.m. start, forcing everyone back indoors for safety’s sake. And there, at a table filled with Sharpie pens, sat six of members of the hockey team who weren’t competing that night — Jackie Briggs, Ali Campbell (University of Maryland), Julia Reinprecht, Taylor West, Katelyn Falgowski and Ali Froede (Burke).
They autographed T-shirts and miniature plastic field hockey sticks. They posed for pictures and asked each girl what sport she played and what position. They even sang “Happy Birthday” to 12-year-old Sierra Jester, whose mother had driven her from Felton, Del., along with five friends, to celebrate her special day at the game.
Best friends Avery Pollock, 10, and Danielle Murphy, 9, were especially thrilled that Falgowski was there. A midfielder from Landenberg, Pa., she had come to their school district, field hockey powerhouse Lower Dauphin, the previous year and talked about being an Olympian.
“She said, ‘Mistakes can happen!’ But she just keeps going,” Avery said. “And even if she’s hurt,” Danielle added, eyes big as saucers, “she never gives up!”