Former Maryland star cherishing her time with her teammates
Both grew up in Eastern Pennsylvania as high-scoring field hockey strikers. Both propelled the University of Maryland to NCAA championships. Both are on the U.S. Olympic team. Other than that, Keli Smith-Puzo and Katie O'Donnell have little in common.
Separated by a decade, the two are in different stages of their lives. Smith-Puzo, 33, is a mother of two, married to a college coach and ready to get on with her life after London. O'Donnell, 23, is unattached, is one of the young stars of Team USA and has many years of international competition ahead.
Ten years ago, Smith-Puzo was O'Donnell.
|July 29 vs. Germany, 4:15 p.m.*|
|July 31 vs. Argentina, 2 p.m.*|
|Aug. 2 vs. Australia, 5:45 a.m.^|
|Aug. 4 vs. New Zealand, 4:15 p.m.^|
|Aug. 6 vs. South Africa, 5:45 a.m.^|
|Other Team USA locals|
|Claire Laubach (defender) » The Centreville High product failed to make the team in 2008, three years after graduating from Wake Forest, but stuck with the sport. "She came out and made herself into a better player," Keli Smith-Puzo said. "She wasn't afraid to put the time in." Laubach excels on penalty corner drag flicks.|
|Paige Selenski (forward) » One of two University of Virginia seniors who took the year off from school to train with the Olympic team, Silenski combines her athletic gifts -- speed, skill and finesse -- with a hard shot.|
|Michelle Vitesse (forward) » Silenski's Virginia teammate specializes in rushes from the midfield. She scored a goal in the U.S. upset of Argentina in the Pan-Am Games final. "One thing to watch is the speed of Michelle's hands," Smith-Puzo said.|
|Shannon Taylor (striker) » The 2008 Syracuse grad from Midlothian, Va., is on the team for the first time after leading the team in scoring leading up to London. The defender-turned-striker will serve as an assistant coach at Massachusetts starting in the fall.|
"I used to be the youngest," Smith-Puzo said. "Now I'm the oldest, though I still feel 25."
Together, the two Maryland grads symbolize why this U.S. squad has high hopes. With an optimal blend of experience and youth, Team USA has a legitimate chance to capture a medal for the first time since 1984. A 4-2 victory over traditional power Argentina in the finals of the 2011 Pan-Am Games was an exciting peek at the potential of Team USA.
"It's a great combination of dynamic young players, experienced Olympians -- and mothers," joked Maryland field hockey coach Missy Meharg, who will serve as a TV commentator during the Olympics.
Smith-Puzo actually is the only player who has given birth. She and her husband, Inako Puzo, the field hockey coach at Miami of Ohio, perform a challenging, cross-country, balancing act. From January to May, sons Xavi, 2, and Ian, 10 months, were with Keli in Chula Vista, Calif., where the national team trains. Helping baby-sit was Melissa Vassalotti, a goalkeeper at Maryland who moved to San Diego after finishing her career last fall.
"When the day's over and I'm done training or walk off the pitch when I'm done with a game, I'm able to leave it on the field. I can clear my mind and be present for my family," Smith-Puzo said. "Every time I walk on the field, I feel fresh and ready to go again."
In having her children, Smith-Puzo has had to take time off from training. Pulling her back, however, has been the growing potential of the team under coach Lee Bodimeade, who was hired after the United States failed to qualify for the 2004 Olympic Games.
Showing improvement in international competition heading into the 2008 Olympics, the United States expected to contend for a medal at Beijing but finished a disappointing eighth.
"I thought it was a missed opportunity for us," Bodimeade said. "There were a lot of reasons as to why you could justify us coming in eighth. None of them sit that well with me."
Seven players from that team are among the 16 who will travel to London this weekend, enticed by the prospect of playing in a country where field hockey originated and remains revered. Players expect most of the 15,000 seats at Riverbank Arena to be filled, a departure from the atmosphere they faced in Beijing. An endorsement from the new Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, a former field hockey player, also has boosted the visibility of the event.
Smith-Puzo said she has remained with the team for other reasons, however.
"If you don't enjoy the process, then there's nothing to be said for the end result," Smith-Puzo said. "It's always about enjoying my time with the team and really just enjoying being a competitor and leaving it all on the field."
When Smith-Puzo joined the national team in 2002, it was made up largely of veteran players in their 30s. But this year's Olympic squad includes five college players -- three from Princeton and two from Virginia -- who took the year off from school to train for London.
The younger players, such as O'Donnell, have provided a boost in quickness and athleticism that previous U.S. teams lacked. Bodimeade has geared Team USA's tactics to take advantage.
"It's a very athletic, fast-paced, counter-attack, full-field, press style," Meharg said. "The team matches the culture of the coaching staff. They'll be unbelievably risky, and that could be their demise. But I think that's how they have a chance to be at their best."