A year ago Megan Bozek, Amanda Kessel and Lee Stecklein could be found daily at Ridder Arena, in the heart of the University of Minnesota’s campus.
They were in the midst of something special: an undefeated record and, eventually, a run to the Gophers second-straight Women’s Hockey National Championship.
As they practiced on Ridder’s ice sheet, Minnesota’s Olympian Alumni stared down at them. In one of the corners of the arena rests a collage of former Gophers who have represented their country in various international competition. They symbolize the best who've previously donned the maroon and gold, and were a constant reminder of trio’s dreams to one day play in the Olympics.
Little did they know, those dreams would be fulfilled in the ensuing months, as they were officially announced as part of the US Women’s Olympic Team set to participate in the 2014 games in Sochi, Russia.
“It’s always good to take a few minutes to step back and think about what’s happened in this past year,” Bozek said. “I’ve been so fortunate to be on successful teams, whether it’s at Minnesota or here.
“I had the best four years of my life at the University of Minnesota and I think it taught me a lot about myself as a player, as a person, and it got me to this level.”
Bozek, Kessel and Stecklein join two former Golden Gophers — Gigi Marvin and Anne Schleper — on the U.S. Women’s Olympic team that will go for Gold in Sochi this February. Of the five Gophers, three are Minnesota natives: Marvin (Warroad), Schleper (St. Cloud) and Stecklein (Roseville). Kessel is the lone forward, with the other four anchoring the blue line for Team USA.
As part their Road To Sochi, the skaters returned to the State of Hockey on Dec. 28 in a tilt with the Canadian National team. Drawing in a crowd of more than 9,000 fans, including droves of girls’ teams sporting their sweaters, the stands in Xcel Energy Center were a jumble of colors.
Team USA took the ice in their whites, edging Team Canada in a shootout 3-2, but donning their country’s colors sweater was a distinct experience in front of the fans that have supported them closely over the years.
“Every single time we put on the U.S. jersey, it’s amazing, but putting it on in Minnesota is really something special,” Stecklein said.
At 19, Stecklein is the youngest member of the team, with her 20th birthday on April 23. The Roseville native would be a sophomore this year for the Gophers, while Kessel would have been a senior (both can return to the Gophers next year with full eligibility). For Stecklein, skating with her leaders from freshman year is an added bonus to her Olympic experience.
“They’re amazingly supportive,” Stecklein said. “They were leaders to me last year and to have this chance to play with them again this year, it’s been incredible. All the Gophers and everyone on the team has been great, as a younger player. But definitely the Gophers look out for each other and they’ve been leaders for me to look up to.”
As Bozek, Kessel, Stecklein and Schleper make their first Olympic appearances, they’ll lean on the experience of Gigi Marvin and the other 10 veterans who won Silver in Vancouver in 2010.
Already aware of the test Team Canada will bring, Team USA has used the Road to Sochi to focus on handling diversions, which will be present every day at the Olympics.
“I think there’s a highlight at the Olympics every single hour, at least, of every day,” Marvin said. “Knowing that, when you go there, on so many different levels it’s an emotional output, a spiritual output, a physical and mental — so many demands — right now it’s awesome because we’re focusing on minimizing the distraction. It’s such a huge sporting it event, something that we dream about, and we’re actually living it out right now.”
For some, living that dream has come much sooner than expected.
“I don’t think these past two years together will hit me until years later because they’ve been such an incredible experience,” Stecklein said. “I’ve been a part of two incredible teams. It’s literally astounding to think when I was younger, this was my dream: to be able to have the chance to go to the Olympics. It will be something that I’ll always, always remember.”