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Golden Girls A spirited, close knit and talented U.S. women's team showed its mettle by defeating favored Canada to win the sport's first Games championship

March 02, 1998
March 02, 1998

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March 2, 1998

College Basketball [bonus Piece]

Golden Girls A spirited, close knit and talented U.S. women's team showed its mettle by defeating favored Canada to win the sport's first Games championship

By the time the clock struck midnight and the pop of champagne
corks was heard at the victory party, the game's particulars had
begun to fade from conversation. The feelings were what the U.S.
women ice hockey players wanted to review: the lumps in their
throats, the chills that ran down their spines, the
eye-dampening sight of goalie Sarah Tueting high-stepping around
the ice like a crazed drum major after the U.S. won the gold
medal game 3-1 against archnemesis Canada. Sandra Whyte,
Tueting's onetime housemate in Boston, had sealed the victory,
nudging in a 40-foot empty-net goal that the sellout crowd in
Nagano's Big Hat stadium traced on its excruciatingly slow path
to the net with a steadily building roar of oh-oh-ooOOHH! "I'm
sure all of us will see ourselves celebrating on tape tomorrow
and say, 'I did what?' said U.S. forward A.J. Mleczko.

This is an article from the March 2, 1998 issue Original Layout

"All I could think was, We just won a gold medal--did we not
just win a gold medal?" said Tueting, an apple-cheeked Dartmouth
junior-to-be who made 21 saves, many of them spectacular, in the
final, and then floated into both the postgame press conference
and the victory party wearing a two-foot-tall foam-rubber Uncle
Sam hat that her brother, Jonathon, had tossed onto the ice.
Suddenly those despair-filled months in 1996, when Tueting was
ready to quit hockey at age 19 because she'd never been invited
to a U.S. national team tryout, seemed long, long ago. "I had
gone home that summer, taken the Olympic posters off my bedroom
wall and told everyone I was through," Tueting said. "Then
August came, and I got a letter inviting me to camp. I made the
national team. In the space of two weeks I went from quitting
hockey to putting my life on hold to chase this dream. And now
look."

In winning the six-team inaugural women's Olympic tournament
with a 6-0 record, the U.S. team eclipsed Picabo Street as
America's feel-good story of the Winter Games. On Sunday,
General Mills announced that it had chosen Tueting and her
teammates to adorn its post-Olympics Wheaties box. Just hours
after the gold medal game on Feb. 17, the Late Show with David
Letterman rushed 10 of the U.S. players to a Nagano TV studio to
read a Top Ten List titled "Cool Things About Winning an Olympic
Gold Medal." (No. 1: "Get to do Jell-O shots with Dave's mom.")

Sportswriters walked into the final grousing about having to
cover it and walked out gushing that it was the best damn thing
they'd ever seen. A felicitous line by Washington Post columnist
Michael Wilbon, who called Mleczko "the first leftwinger I've
ever had a crush on," was typical.

That stretching sound you hear is attitudes about women athletes
continuing to expand. After the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics and
now the Nagano Games, it's clear that the U.S.'s female athletic
heroes don't have to play what Billie Jean King has jokingly
called the "good clothes sports"--figure skating, tennis and
golf. Women never lacked the strength or will to compete in the
grittier sports, just the opportunity. When they get the chance,
they can produce stirring results. As the U.S. men's Olympic
goalie, Mike Richter of the New York Rangers, said admiringly
after watching the U.S. women play Canada, "You felt so good for
them, the way they were just bleeding for each other to win
every game."

Since women's hockey staged its first world championships, in
1990, Canada had been the sport's colossus. It beat the U.S. in
the final of that tournament and the three world championships
that followed. In Nagano the deep, skilled Canadian team was led
by 170-pound forward Hayley Wickenheiser, widely considered the
best female player in the world, and by firebrand coach Shannon
Miller, a Calgary cop whose give-no-quarter comments got under
the U.S. players' skins. (Miller accused Whyte of taunting
Canadian winger Danielle Goyette about the recent death of
Goyette's father, which Whyte vigorously denied having done.) If
crucible-tested experience were needed, the Canadians could lean
on 32-year-old captain Stacy Wilson or 39-year-old forward
France St. Louis. "She's 39?" said 18-year-old U.S. defenseman
Angela Ruggiero. "My mom is 39!"

But the Americans had something going for them, too. Because the
talent gap in women's hockey between North America and the rest
of the world is so great, the U.S. and Canadian teams had spent
much of the past three months barnstorming together to prepare
for the Olympics, playing each other 13 times. Each game had
been a board-rattling war.

Though Canada ended with a 7-6 advantage, the Americans won the
Three Nations Cup in Lake Placid in December, defeating the
Canadians in a tournament final for the first time. This
breakthrough came just three days after an early-round loss to
Canada in which the U.S. blew a three-goal lead. After that game
U.S. coach Ben Smith made his players stand in the hallway and
listen to the hooting in the Canadians' dressing room. U.S.
forward Katie King says, "Right then we all just decided, Enough."

In Nagano the Americans flung themselves into their first-round
matchup with Canada, a game that was theoretically meaningless
because both teams had already secured places in the gold medal
showdown. Early in the first period Mleczko slammed Goyette to
the ice near the Canadian bench. Before long Ruggiero had taken
two body-checking penalties. Then, just when it was looking as
if the emotional outburst had backfired--Canada raced to a 4-1
lead, all on power-play goals--the U.S. slammed in six
unanswered goals in the last 13 minutes and won 7-4. Three
nights later came the win for the gold.

And now? "It's back to the unemployment line," said defenseman
Vicki Movsessian, who gave up her accounting job with Prudential
to train for Nagano.

Mleczko said she would work this summer on her dad's charter
fishing boat out of Nantucket and then head back to Harvard for
her senior year. Tueting was waffling on her pre-Games plan to
quit hockey and concentrate on her premed studies and her cello
playing at Dartmouth. Ruggiero groaned, "Do you believe after
all this, I've got to go back to high school?"

Before returning to reality, though, the U.S. players planned to
stop off for a bit of sunbathing in Maui as a reward for having
endured the hard work and technicolor bruises that were part of
the bargain. Of that long march to the gold, forward Cammi
Granato said, "These last five months have been the best time of
my life."

Mleczko agreed. Stealing a glance at her teammates at the
victory party, she added, "It's going to be so hard when we
finally have to tell each other goodbye."

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO A SHOW OF PUCK Granato, who had four goals and four assists in Nagano, was picked to carry the U.S. flag in the closing ceremonies. [Cammi Granato]