It’s been 32 years since the U.S. women’s field hockey team won an Olympic medal—they won bronze in the 1984 Games in Los Angeles—but the Rio Games are shaping up to be its best opportunity for a medal yet.
Team USA, currently ranked fifth in the world (its highest ranking ever), secured its Olympic bid by winning the 2015 Pan American Games, taking down No. 2-ranked Argentina in the final. Just last month, the U.S. captured bronze in the Champions Trophy tournament, beating Australia in a penalty shootout; Argentina took down the top-ranked Netherlands to win gold.
Field hockey remains one of the most popular sports in the Netherlands, and the interest in the game helps drive new talent to the field every year, keeping the Dutch dominant. The women’s team has captured seven world titles, starting with it’s first title in 1974, and rightfully earned the distinction as the most successful team in World Cup history. The Netherlands have been to every Olympic Games since 1984, capturing three gold, one silver and three bronze medals.
“[The Netherlands] have a rich history of hockey in their country, it’s ingrained into their culture,” says U.S. coach Craig Parnham. “There is huge support at the club level, and so that idea, that development quite early, that gives a them a bit of a head start in the right direction in developing their players.”
While the Netherlands are the heavy favorite in Rio, challenges do lay ahead for the team. The Dutch fell to England in the 2015 European Championships after a shootout and will need to need to be prepared to take on British captain Kate Richardson-Walsh and her team with a different level of intensity if they hope to capture a third consecutive gold medal.
Parnham, who took over the U.S. team in 2013, has praised the athletes’ chemistry on and off the field, and cited senior leadership as key to helping the younger players prepare for the experience of playing such large-scale games. This year’s U.S. Olympic roster boasts more veterans than rookies, but only by one, and 10 of the athletes come from Pennsylvania, the site of the U.S. team training camp. A new rule change that separates the game into four quarters, rather than two halves could also change the attack strategy for Team USA.
On the men’s side of the tournament, the Germans, ranked third in the world behind Australia and the Netherlands, remain the favorites to win for the third-straight Olympic Games. However, the Aussies, led by five-time International Hockey Federation player of the year Jamie Dwyer, will be battling them for the top of the podium this year on the men’s side.
Germany squares off with Canada in the first round of the Olympics on the same day that the U.S. women play Argentina in their first-round match.
The U.S. men failed to qualify for the Olympics for the fifth consecutive time, and with a roster that includes five new national players, they will look to rebuild nationally rather than competing in Rio this summer.
Athletes to watch
Melissa Gonzalez, United States
The 27-year old New York native scored a game-winning goal for the U.S. against Australia in the bronze medal match of the Champions Trophy earlier this year, and she looks to lead the U.S. to a medal in Rio as well. Gonzalez has been on the national team since 2010 and also competed in London, bringing both skill and experience to this year’s olympic team.
Lauren Crandall, United States
As the captain of the U.S. team, Crandall has been a part of one of the most successful U.S. women’s field hockey campaigns in the last decade. She played in both the 2008 and 2012 games and helped the U.S. capture gold in the 2011 Pan American Games, 2014 Champions Challenge and the 2015 Pan American Games. She also claimed two national titles as a member of the Wake Forest University team in 2003 and 2004 and has made over 200 international appearance on the field.
Maartje Paumen, Netherlands
Paumen might be the most accomplished female field hockey athlete on the planet in 2016. She comes into Rio as the captain of the top-ranked Dutch team, a player with a resume stocked full of goals, including 11 in Beijing, and two International Hockey Federation Player of the Year honors to her name. Paumen will look to be a threat on the corner unit once again as she attempts to lead her team to a third consecutive gold medal.
Ellen Hoog, Netherlands
Hoon joins Paumen as a dominant player for the Netherlands, a former International Hockey Federation Player of the Year and a multiple time Olympian looking for another gold. Hoog notched goals in the 2008 and 2012 games, and she comes to Rio with over 12 years of national team experience.
Kate Richardson-Walsh, Great Britain
Heading into her fourth Olympic Games, Richardson-Walsh continues to play with the gutsy, fierce approach that she had when she first became the captain of the British women’s hockey team in 2003. She’s competed in seven Champions Trophy tournaments, made over 350 appearance on the field and been a fixture of her team for over a decade, so if Rio ends up being Richardson-Walsh’s last games, she’s sure to bring the extra fire that will help make England fierce competition. Richardson-Walsh announced her retirement after London, but chose to come back for another four years, and she will attempt to carry her team to another podium finishing, after earning the bronze medal with a win over New Zealand in 2012.
Sports Illustrated At The Games
Subscribe to SI's Olympic podcast coverage
Jamie Dwyer, Netherlands
The 37-year-old veteran comes to Rio with five player of the year awards and has appeared in more international games than anyone else in Australian field hockey history. Rio will be his fourth games, and he hopes to bring Australia a gold, like he did in 2004. Dwyer also came up as a candidate to be the flag bearer for the Australians, as he is widely considered one of the greatest male athletes to ever play the game.
Gonzalo Peillat, Argentina
As a leading forward for the Argentines, Peillat scored four goals in his first Olympics four years ago, and he hopes for repeat success in 2016. In 2014, Peillat continued to show his strength on the field, winning the 2014 FIH Rising Star of the Year, scoring ten goals in the 2014 World Cup and leading Argentina to a third place finish in the tournament. and leading Argentina to a third place finish at the 2014 World Cup.
Tom Boon, Belgium
Representing Belgium for the second time at the Olympics, Boon will attempt to build off his successful London performance where he notched five goals and led his team in scoring. Belgium finished fifth in London, just two spots shy of a medal, but the competition continues to mound in this year’s game. The Belgians enter the Games ranked 7th in the world and will need another outstanding performance from Boon to put themselves in contention for hardware.
Tobias Hauke, Germany
The Germans, two time defending gold medalists, currently rank third in the world, but they are anchored by the leadership of captain Tobias Hauke as they fight to claim their third consecutive gold medal.
Aug. 18—Men’s gold-medal game
Aug. 18—Men’s bronze-medal game
Aug. 19—Women’s gold-medal game
Aug. 19—Women’s bronze-medal game