They came into the cauldron of the Max-Schmeling-Halle as the lowest ranked team. They had an average age of just 20 - the lowest in the tournament. They had the least caps – an average of seven, compared to the tournament average of 14. In Madison Orobono, they had the youngest player at the event and eight members of the squad were still teenagers.
And yet, talking to the U.S. Women’s National Indoor Team, mid-way through their debut appearance at the Indoor Hockey World Cup, you got a sense of resilience, wisdom beyond their years and a total commitment to not just play their sport but represent it.
“Sport has given me a confidence and a belief in myself that I take into everyday life,” said one of the team’s senior members, Mary Beth Barham. Along with Ali Campbell and Hannah Prince, Barham is a team elder, albeit at the tender age of 24.
There is certainly no lack of direction or focus among the group of USA athletes who gathered for a discussion about their sport and their Indoor Hockey World Cup campaign.
“We have a serious amount of belief in this team,” says Campbell, who has 14 caps to her name and made the difficult decision to sacrifice her outdoor career to concentrate upon the indoor game.
“Sure the outdoor team gets more profile but that binds us together. We want to make our mark too and while we might not say it too often, I am pretty sure we all feel that. We get together before each game and we say ‘we want to put the pedal to the medal’.”
Just how committed these players are can be measured in time and mileage. Barham was an assistant hockey coach at Yale University. For training she goes on a four-hour drive after work. Captain Hannah Prince has a seven-hour drive. “We put a lot of miles on our cars,” she says, adding cheerfully: “But we car pool and we have a lot of fun. None of us thought of it as sacrifice. We want to be here and we are investing time, money and our hearts into it.”
It’s not just the players who make sacrifices. The parents are in on the act too. Every team member had family support in Berlin, Germany. With the players self-funding the trip and all the training in the run-up to the event, it is easy to imagine that the parental support for these players has been huge.
It is something the players clearly appreciate. There was wobble of emotion in Corinne Zanolli’s voice as the 19-year-old indicated her mother in the group of onlookers listening to the interview. “My parents weren’t supposed to make the trip, and my dad hasn’t been able to, but we were playing a warm-up game and we had just finished against Russia and we were standing on court watching another game and I got a tap on my shoulder and my mum was there. We all started crying. Anyone of our parents would do that. We are on the world stage and it is so awesome to have that support.”
Youngers team member Orobono adds her agreement: “I know my friends back home are getting up at 4am to watch us. That means so much.”
At the event, Team USA did themselves proud. A tenth-place finish means they have moved 12 points up the FIH World Rankings. They drew with Poland, who were ranked fourth and they beat the higher-ranked Kazakhstan team. They also scored four goals against the number one ranked team at the time, the Netherlands.
“We have grown each game,” says Campbell. “The experience in each game has made us more confident. We had our first game jitters against Belarus and that could have destabilized us but we just de-briefed and moved on.”
Coached by the calm former Chinese player Jun Kentwell, the team grew with each match. They were devastated as they lost their final match on shoot-out, but with the resilience so evident in this young team, that will only be another tool for growth and development.
It is a point emphasized by Zanolli: “We don’t often get the chance to play those big games against top teams like the Netherlands. For me it was the first time I played a Dutch team and it is so cool to get those experiences. It’s the value of playing different styles of play.”
Just getting to the Indoor Hockey World Cup was a struggle. The team achieved it by winning the Indoor Pan American Cup, very much against the rankings. Barham says: “We knew that if we didn’t make it here then our program would be junked. Every game we were fighting for life and not just our lives but the lives of people in the future who want to play indoor hockey.”
And that message comes out loud and clear. These players want to create a legacy that allows indoor hockey to grow and be enjoyed by everyone. Anarose McDonough recalls how she began playing in a storage basement because that was the only facility available at the time. Now she walks around her campus or town and children ask for her to sign autographs. “They even follow me on Instagram,” she adds with a bemused grin.
Ali Campbell has known life as a field hockey player and says her ambition is just to grow the game indoors and outdoors. “It’s the sport I love,” she says. “We have a motto within Team USA, ‘Grow the Game’. I love that. There are a lot of kids who don’t know what to do and hockey provides a great opportunity to get involved in a sport.”
“There are not enough halls and pitches,” adds Zanolli, “but there is a real buzz around the game. And indoor is such a great sport to develop skills, especially when it is the cold months – you can keep playing and growing as an athlete.”
One thing can definitely be said of this team. There are no pretensions. The interview was informal and fun and the players were happy to talk. There is some tension in the USA, as there is in many countries, between indoor and outdoor hockey. These players just want to train and be the best they can be. As Campbell says: “I live in Lancaster and having Spooky Nook there, with all the age groups, other people get to see the real you. They see you in the street or in a shop and they see you on the field. They see the two sides of you and they get intrigued to learn about the real you.
“ I’m often told, ‘Wow, you are so different off the court’. They know that we are very individual. I would say we are a bunch of pretty unique individuals totally meshing together.”