Wednesday March 28th, 2012

Heart and mind racing, palms sweating, Keli Smith took a deep breath and looked down at the little plastic stick in her hand. Just back to the U.S. after ringing in 2011 in Venezuela with her in-laws, she waited for confirmation in the bathroom of the Baltimore hotel room where she and her family were staying. Positive, the test read. Indeed, Smith was pregnant once again.

The rush of joy and delight over welcoming a second child into her family was overwhelming, but she didn't burst out screaming the news. She didn't even tell her husband until late that night, her excitement perhaps tempered only by the knowledge that this was probably it. After playing nine years as a striker for the U.S. National Field Hockey Team, the 31-year-old native of Selinsgrove, Penn., figured this might just be nature's way of telling her it was time to retire.

"In our sport we hadn't had anybody have a child and keep playing -- let alone two," Smith says.

It seemed like the obvious choice, and fully ready to walk away and close this chapter of her life, she told her husband her decision. He, however, was not so sure. A former member of the Venezuelan national field hockey team -- and now head coach at Miami (Ohio) -- Iñako Puzo understands the demands of the sport as well as his wife does.

"Not so fast," he told her. "Let's wait and see. Maybe it's still attainable. Let's not close the door on it quite yet."

They sat down together and gave the situation a great deal of thought. Their baby was due in August 2011, about a year before the London Games. It wouldn't be easy to get back into shape, to be ready for top competition so soon after giving birth, they both agreed, but it wasn't impossible either. "I came to the conclusion that we'd see how it goes," she says. "Give it a try or else maybe I'll always wonder if I stopped too soon."

Scheduled to fly out to California later that month for a training camp in advance of the Four Nations tournament in Argentina, which was held in February 2011, Smith joined her team with a secret literally growing in the pit of her stomach. It was too early in the pregnancy to tell anyone, but after the first week of training, she felt she had to clue in coach Lee Bodimeade. "I wanted to make sure he could still prepare for the future knowing that I wasn't going to be there," Smith says.

She was, however, adamant about keeping her news from her teammates until after the tournament in Argentina. She didn't want it to be an issue or a distraction to her team -- even if that meant darting back to her room under the guise of "forgetting something," when bouts of morning sickness struck or excusing herself to another room when she wanted to change her shirt, afraid someone might notice her belly beginning to grow.

"It was," she pauses, "interesting."

But after the tournament in Argentina, in which she helped the U.S. to a second-place finish and played in her 150th career game, she finally shared the news with her team: she was nearly three months pregnant. It was a relief to end the weeks of secrecy, and yet in some ways, Smith knew that this was just the beginning of her road to London.

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The Smith-Puzos welcomed baby Ian on August 31, 2011.

About six weeks later, after taking a brief hiatus from the team, working out as much as her body would allow -- "There is a point where you just can't anymore," she says -- Smith returned to the gym and started training again. In December, she flew out to California and rejoined her team for training. "It's different to be on a treadmill in a gym or lifting compared to actually being here and on the turf," she says. "Even though it might seem quick, I needed to get the cobwebs out."

Some days are easier than others, she admits, but the support system her family has created makes sure that there are more good days than bad. And though it took a few weeks before she felt like her legs were under her and her touch on the ball began to return, Smith is feeling more and more confident, and her prospects for London are looking better. In her first game back on Jan. 14, she scored two goals to pull the US into a 2-2 tie with Australia, the 7th ranked team in the world. After tipping in a score on a penalty corner in the first half, Smith found a seam between two defenders and broke in on Aussie keeper, Toni Cronk. She faked left before shifting right and swept the ball into the net as she sprawled her body onto the turf.

Seeing the successes of her team while she was out seemed to invigorate her too. In October, she watched as the U.S. captured gold at the Pan American Games in Guadalajara, defeating the top-ranked Argentinean team, 4-2, and secure a spot at the 2012 Olympics. Sitting at home on her couch with her two boys, she watched with great pride and perhaps a slight tinge of envy. "Part of me wanted to be with the team for that," she says. "But then part of me looks at my boys and thinks, Well, life is amazing here, too."

Still, it's clear she retains that competitive spirit and the desire to keep playing. In fact, if anything, she has grown to enjoy the game more since having her first child, Xavi, in 2010. "For me, before having children, it was sometimes hard for me to turn [the game mentality] off," she says. "The game ends, and I wouldn't be able to turn off what happened. And over time, what ends up happening is that you take everything back onto the field. Instead of starting fresh, and feeling like you're re-energized, you take some baggage back and it's sometimes difficult and exhausting. But after [becoming a mother], I felt I was enjoying the sport more because I was able to turn it off when I was off the field."

Her shift in perspective colors everything a little differently now. "I'm finally at a point in my life, with two kids and a husband at home, where if this all ends tomorrow, I would be fine," she says. "It's not like, 'Oh my, what am I going to do with myself?'

"Going into London, I think I'll just try and cherish every moment of the ride because for me, it's over after [that]?and there's no question about it," she says. "Knowing there's an end to this and it's around the corner for me changes the perspective a little bit. I might as well enjoy it while I can."

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