With temperatures hovering in the mid-90s and a record-setting heat index blanketing the Twin Cities, Minnesotans who normally spend every waking summer moment at one of their 10,000 lakes are scrambling to take air-conditioned cover from the intense July heat.
U.S. Women’s Olympic Team
Not Natalie Darwitz. It’s the ideal weather for cruising around Prior Lake in her new 20-foot Malibu ski boat. The sleek vessel is one of her most prized possessions because it not only gives her the freedom to experience summer to the fullest, it serves as a reminder of all the years of hard work she has put into getting where she is today.
After each of her three Olympic runs, Darwitz has rewarded herself for the years of hard work and sacrifice that are associated with being a member of the U.S. Women’s Olympic Team. First it was a jet ski, then a Springer Spaniel named Oakley, and finally the boat of her dreams.
“I’m a lake person, so every winter I’m counting down the days until the ice is off the lake and the water starts to warm up,” she says. “I cherish every single summer day because being from Minnesota you only get a few months of them.”
From an early age, the summer months have always been Darwitz’s time to cool her heels away from the rink and enjoy other fun summertime activities.
“I think it’s important to recharge your batteries and take time away from the rink,” says Darwitz, who
was also an accomplished softball player in her hometown of Eagan, Minn.
“I always took that time off, and it wasn’t until late July or early August that I got on the ice. When I did return I was re-energized and couldn’t wait to work on my skating, my shooting and my stickhandling.”
That’s why she shakes her head in disbelief when she hears of parents who push their kids to play hockey year round for fear of falling behind the competition. She firmly believes that the time she spent away from the rink made her a better hockey player.
“The days when you’re excited to go to the rink are the days you’re going to improve,” she says. “If you’re crabby about going to the rink and you’re parents are pushing you and you’re going there just because, those are the days you’re going to go through the motions and it’s going to be a waste of time.”
Lately, Darwitz has been on a hockey hiatus to heal a left wrist injury that has hampered her since the lead up to the Vancouver Olympics. Rather that risk missing her third Games, she opted to bite the bullet and play through the pain and the frustration that came from losing power on her shot that has netted 113 goals in international competition.
“It wasn’t painful, but it was frustrating because I knew that I wasn’t doing everything that I could
when I was 100 percent,” says the captain of the 2010 U.S. squad. “There were a couple of times when my shot didn’t have the same zip on it. I said that this is the new normal for me and I just had to deal with it and dig deeper.
“I just taped it up and played as best I could and didn’t let anyone know that I was playing with a bad wing.”
She knows that all she can do is to wait and be patient, something she admits she’s not very good at, for the strength to return. In the meantime, playing the waiting game has given Darwitz time to pause and wonder what’s the next step in what has been a storied career.
“I’m kind of at a crossroads right now whether to keep playing or get into coaching more,” says the 27-year-old. “When I look at players my own age there’s not many of them left.”
Two of her best friends, Krissy Wendell and Kelly Stephens, are now married and starting families, leaving Darwitz to wonder if she is willing to put her future plans on hold for one more kick at the Olympic can.
“Do I still love the game? Yeah. But when you’re getting up there [in age] these tough decisions come into play, like getting married and having kids,” Darwitz admits. “So far my boyfriend [Chris] has been really good about it because of my passion for hockey, but I wonder how much longer can I still go on?”
After missing several U.S Women’s Team camps over the summer, Darwitz knows that if she’s going to play, she’ll have to ante in her chips fairly quickly to get ready mentally and physically for the long march toward Sochi, Russia in 2014.
“I think ‘holy cow, this is important to this little girl and I’m a reason maybe that she wants to play hockey.’”
“I probably have to make my decision pretty soon,” Darwitz says. “The more time I spend away from the team and away from the game the harder it will be to go back.
“There are days when I just want to lace up my skates and play in a big-time game with a lot of pressure and go out there and have fun. There are other days that I’m really excited to have a normal schedule and a normal life where I get to spend time with my boyfriend and my dog.”
To keep those fires burning, Darwitz not only runs her own hockey schools but also spent the past several seasons as an assistant coach with the Gophers. She was looking forward to returning for another season when Lakeville South, a local high school in the Twin Cities, made her an offer she couldn’t refuse.
“It’s going to be a big change leaving the U, but I need head coaching experience,” says Darwitz, who is also looking at going back to school to get her teaching degree. “[Leaving] ended up being a little sooner than I would’ve liked but I had to jump at that opportunity. Wearing different colors, it’s a little strange for me. Also, I’ll be coaching against my dad.”
Like her father Scott, who taught her the game, coaching is in her blood. And being the beneficiary of so many top coaches throughout her career, Darwitz feels at home giving back to the game, sharing some of the hockey knowledge she’s compiled along the way.
“It’s fun and definitely something that I have a passion for. I love working with kids starting with ankle biters,” she says. “I’ve been pretty fortunate that I’ve been coached by so many different types of coaches from Ben Smith to Mark Johnson … Jack Blatherwick to Jackie Barto. It’s fun because they all have different coaching styles, so I can bring those styles into my own coaching style.”
The time away has also given her a chance to think about how far she has come from her strides on the ice as a 5-year-old. Seemingly overnight she went from the future of the women’s game as the youngest player to ever suit up for the U.S. Women’s National Team to one who captained the silver-medal winning squad. Along the way she has won three Olympic medals and three IIHF Women’s World Championships.
“At the time I had no idea. I was just a kid who was playing hockey,” she says. “When I do camps and
clinics and I hear from parents that ‘my daughter has a poster of you hung in her room’ or ‘the only reason she came to this camp was because you were here,’ a light bulb goes off and I think ‘holy cow, this is important to this little girl and I’m a reason maybe that she wants to play hockey. That’s pretty humbling and pretty special to hear.”
For now, there is too much to do before the Minnesota summer is over in the blink of an eye. In some
ways, one of the greatest hockey careers in USA Hockey history must feel the same way. There will always be time to recall all the goals scored, the championship trophies held high at center ice and the deep friendships made along the way.
For now Darwitz is enjoying life on the lake.
“It’s a lot of fun being out there with friends and family,” she says. “We’ll go out there early in the morning and do a little wake boarding and then hang out in the sun. Then at night we’ll go for a little nightcap and watch the sun set. That’s the life for me.”