A Test Of Skill & Will

U.S. Women’s Team Battles More Than Olympic Opponents To Win Silver Medal

Adversity is one of the most overused words in sports. Every team talks about how they’ve battled adversity to come back from being a goal down or losing a star player in a tournament.

Real adversity is having to breathe with the help of a ventilator, or not being able to see a parent or grandparent for months at a time because they’re immunocompromised, or losing a loved one to Covid-19.

Joel Johnson knows all this very well. Sure, he served as the head coach of the U.S. Women’s Olympic Team, but he’s also a human being.

So when he lost one of his star players 10 minutes into the team’s first game of the tournament, or when half his coaching staff wasn’t on the U.S. bench, or when his team fell behind by three goals in the gold-medal game, Johnson was certainly concerned but he also managed to keep it in perspective.
Life has a way of going on no matter what takes place inside a hockey rink.

“I don’t want to compare this to something that it shouldn’t be, but from an athletic experience this has been one of the toughest journeys that our players or our coaching staff has endured,” Johnson said after his team’s 3-2 loss to their archrivals from Canada in the gold-medal game.

This Olympic journey has been more than a test of skill. It’s been a battle of wills, and not only for the athletes. Every person who made the journey had to deal with daily tests, QR health codes and wearing masks while being isolated in a bubble.

The slogan of the 2022 Olympic Winter Games, “Together For A Shared Future,” is a nice sentiment but it didn’t meet the realities of living through a global pandemic. The Olympic experience here was a shadow of its former self, with no fanfare and even fewer fans, very little athlete interaction and daily reminders that the slightest slip up could have drastic consequences.

Johnson and his team skated off the ice at the Wukesong Sports Centre with a silver medal, but like every other athlete, they deserve a gold medal for their resiliency to fulfill an Olympic dream.

“We’re just fortunate we were able to have an Olympic Games given the global pandemic,” said Hilary Knight, who was competing in her fourth Olympics. “It’s scary waking up every day thinking ‘am I going to test positive from something that I can’t see?’ It’s been devastating living with that anxiety.

“At the end of the day, every team was going through the same thing and it’s wonderful that we were able to have this as safely as we did and be able to represent our country on a world stage.”
Given all the obstacles thrown in their way to get here today to showcase the best of women’s hockey on the world stage, this team has much to be proud of.

They lost the heart and soul of their team, Brianna Decker, to a broken leg. One of their assistant coaches wasn’t in Beijing for much of the tournament because of a family health situation back home. Another coach spent two weeks in an isolation facility after testing positive for Covid upon arrival.    
“Seeing how our team continued to fight and battle was really impressive to me,” Johnson said. “I shared that with them actually before the game. I felt confident in our ability to win today in part because of the adversity that we’ve overcome and some of the challenges that were unique to us. They were not excuses, they were just challenges.”

And then there’s Alex Cavallini, who tore her MCL and almost didn’t make the trip to China. With the help of the U.S. medical staff and the determination to realize her dream of finally playing in an Olympic game, she persevered. She ended up starting the final three games in goal for the U.S., including the gold-medal game.

“It was a huge deal for me to just even get minutes here and for them to believe in me and ride me through was really something truly special,” said Cavallini, who never saw the ice during her first Olympic experience in 2018.

What’s that they say about what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger? This was one of the strongest collection of athletes to proudly wear the USA crest. They took the best shot that pandemic life could throw their way and they were left standing in spite of it all. They just weren’t standing on the rung of the medals podium they were expecting.

“The way we played today showed the fight, the grit, the resiliency and the adversity that this group has faced and has overcome over these last three years, six months and two weeks. There’s so much to be proud of,” said captain Kendall Coyne Schofield.

“It’s not the result we wanted, not the result we came here to get, but when you look at these last two weeks and the adversity we faced in two weeks … we were able to overcome so much. We have so much to be proud of.”

This has been a journey that was not for the faint of heart. Then again, these are trying times for everyone. We’ve all learned a lot about ourselves over the past two years, and Johnson is no different.   

“We’ve all learned how to do things differently,” he said. “We’ve made adjustments to how we teach, how we coach, how we use resources. There’s been some natural learning that goes on and coaching hockey is no different.

“Do I expect that we’ll use those adjustments going forward? I’m not exactly sure. I know that Zoom meetings are great, but I don’t want to be on one for a long time. And that masks are necessary, but I can’t wait until I can take it off.”

photos by Getty Images / Images On Ice


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