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A Medal Worth More Than Weight in Gold

By Rachel Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 18, 1998; Page A1

 Karen Bye wraps herself in the flag after Tuesday's 3-1 gold medal victory over Canada.
(AP Photo)

NAGANO, Feb. 17 — When Cammi Granato, captain of the U.S. women's hockey team, realized she was about to receive the sport's first Olympic gold medal, she began gulping for breath, her shoulders heaving up and down. The United States had just defeated Canada, 3-1, and as the precious disk was placed around her neck, Granato looked up to receive it, then buried her face in her hands.

The United States had defeated the favored Canadians, the four-time defending world champion, in the most important women's hockey game ever played. The two teams, bitter rivals, today were partners in history.

"It was a real empty feeling to lose," Canada Coach Shannon Miller said. "But when they showed Cammi Granato's face on the big screen and the medal around her neck, my feelings changed completely. I realized a gold medal was being hung around the neck of a female hockey player, and I couldn't believe the effect it had on me."

The U.S. women's ice hockey team joins the U.S. women's basketball, soccer, gymnastics and softball teams of Atlanta's Summer Games in their gold medal success and shares with U.S. gold medal skier Picabo Street the most compelling moments for American fans at these Winter Games.

"We do not have a National Hockey League for women's hockey, so this was our chance, maybe for a lifetime, to show how great hockey can be," U.S. defenseman Sue Merz said. "I've seen the 'Miracle on Ice' of Team USA in 1980 on TV, and I had the memory of that moment in the back of my head when we went out on the ice for this gold medal game."

This game did not have the global implications of the 1980 Lake Placid "Miracle on Ice" game in which the underdog U.S. men's team defeated the powerful Soviet Union in the semifinals en route to the gold medal. But today had a significance of its own. Each of the women had been told at least once in her life that she couldn't play ice hockey, and many remember scraping by for years on boys teams because there was nowhere else to go. Women have been competing in world championships only since 1991, and getting their sport full medal status at these Olympics was a hard-fought battle.

Karyn Bye, 26, grew up playing hockey on boys teams, with her initials on the back of her uniform so she could skate undetected as a girl.

"When she was 12 years old, she said she was going to the Olympics," said her father, Chuck, after today's victory. "She even wrote to the Olympic Committee to ask them about it, and they wrote her back and said, 'We don't have women's hockey.' And now there she is out there. That's how far we've come."

The two teams sparred throughout the game, with the Americans taking a 2-0 lead before the Canadians scored in the third period to tighten the gap. But with less than a minute to go and the Canadian goaltender on the bench so that all Canada's players could focus on scoring, U.S. forward Sandra Whyte slipped down the left side of the ice and took a long shot into Canada's empty goal. By the time the puck reached the back of the netting, the victory belonged to the Americans, and their lives had changed forever.

Less than a minute after the final buzzer sounded, the Canadians lined up on the blueline near their bench, their helmets still on and their sticks in their hands. At the time, the Americans were still piling off their bench and into a big heap near the center of the ice, one player's tears melting into another's. With gloves and sticks tossed about the ice like litter and bodies flying into each other in congratulations, the U.S. side of the rink looked like a college party. The Canadian side looked like a funeral.

Canada has won every major game played in women's ice hockey in the last decade. The United States had vastly improved over the past five years, although the Canadians edged the Americans, 7-6, in a 13-game exhibition series leading up to the Olympics. There was still the overwhelming feeling, shared with the Canadian men's team, that hockey was their game, their religion.

 U.S. goalkeeper Sarah Tueting eyes the puck during the women's 3-1 gold medal victory over Canada. (Emmanuel Dunanda/AFP)

That feeling began to slip slightly on Saturday, when the United States came from behind with six unanswered goals to defeat Canada, 7-4, in a round-robin game. The animosity between the teams also grew that night, when players exchanged words and accusations after the postgame handshakes.

But that game, played after the participants in the gold medal game already had been determined, didn't mean much. Today's game did.

"Our hearts definitely went out to [the Canadians], but there have been so many times before when we've been on that side of it with the silver medal," Granato said. "The last time they won at the world championships, I looked over to Lisa Brown-Miller and said, 'Are we ever going to do this?'"

To push his team over that hump today, U.S. Coach Ben Smith got a little help from an expert on motivation, via videotape. Last year, he had started their national team tour by making the players watch "When We Were Kings," a documentary film about Muhammad Ali's victory over George Foreman in their famous 1974 fight in Zaire. Fifteen months later, he asked one of his assistants to make a film that spliced together highlights of the team's best goals and hits. They used some of Ali's speeches from the movie as voice-overs and some of Ali's inspirational scenes as well. Then they showed the tape today, on the team's bus ride to the arena.

Defenseman Angela Ruggiero, the team's youngest player at 18, was born just a month before the 1980 Olympics. A national team member at 15, she never had to suffer through the trials of her older teammates.

In some ways, that makes today's victory less poignant for her. In other ways, it makes it more hopeful.

"This is just the beginning for me," she said. "They can't hand me a gold medal and then expect me to fade away. I want this feeling again and again."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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