VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- It's possible that Caitlin Cahow was born with all the determination and smarts she would need to become one of the U.S. national hockey team's most stalwart defensemen, a two-time Olympian whose team will count on her fortitude in Thursday's gold medal game against Canada.
Yet she'd be the first to tell you that figure skates have something to do with her personality on the ice.
Cahow's mother, Barbara Kinder, named her after the sweetly skilled pairs skater Caitlin "Kitty" Carruthers, who won the 1984 Olympic silver medal with her brother Peter. Kinder, then a professor of surgery at Yale University who had competed in figure skating as a teenager, signed her feisty auburn-haired daughter up for lessons at Ingalls Rink, better known as the Yale Whale. Cahow picks up the story from there.
"I went for about a year, just miserable the whole time," she said. "I tried to get her to buy me the black men's figure skates, and she wouldn't do it, and I was pissed. One day I was unlacing my skates after practice, just so excited to be going home. The buzzer sounded, and all of a sudden all these hockey players start coming out. I looked and I noticed they had ponytails. Turns out it was Yale and Dartmouth, playing a Sunday game. I was just transfixed. That was it."
Cahow enrolled in a kids' hockey clinic where -- in a familiar tale for many players of her generation -- the ice was full of boys. "My mother, to prove a point, wasn't sure I was serious about playing hockey, so she made me play the entire first year in figure skates," Cahow said. "And if you think being the only girl on the ice is tough, you try being the only girl on the ice wearing figure skates. That toughened me up enough to play hockey for the next 20 years."
Her hardiness was on display Monday in the Americans' semifinal win over Sweden, a 9-1 stomping of the team that bumped them from gold medal contention in 2006. After scoring her second goal of the tournament earlier in the game, Cahow stuck one knee in the path of a Swedish player's slap shot; the ricochet was played into a goal seconds later, which Cahow said hurt worse than the impact. She came back in the third period after a few stitches.
The U.S. women have romped, as expected, to the game that matters the most against the only team in the world that has a winning record against them.
"It's going to be rowdy," Cahow said of the crowd expected to pack Canada Hockey Place on Thursday. "You have to take in the boos and translate in your mind that they're cheering for you."
Aside from training X's and O's, Cahow said she's put a lot of effort into making sure she's not blindsided by the occasion.
"I learned a while ago, when you play depending on emotion and allow that to rule you as you step out onto the ice, maybe one time out of 10 you're going to have the game of a lifetime, get off the ice and say, 'Wow, that was the greatest game I've ever played,'" she said. "But nine times out of 10, you aren't going to feel great about the outcome, because it'll be too much about what was surging through you at the time and not enough about what your brain is telling you to do.
"If you can allow yourself to watch the game from a removed distance -- as a defenseman, that's my best bet because I see the whole ice surface. If I can remove myself and watch the game as it happens and pick my spots and make it more of a thinking game, that's when I'm at my best. It doesn't work as well when I'm emotionally jazzed. I need my brain working on all cylinders."
One of the youngest players on the Olympic roster four years ago, Cahow conducts herself like a veteran now. Being part of a team where a bronze medal was a disappointment "just galvanized my desire to come back and improve upon my personal and our collective experience," she said in her low, animated voice. "No doubt in my mind that I and we had unfinished business. It made the decision very easy.
"Playing at the top level during that Olympic training year really demonstrated to me quite profoundly that there was so much more out there that I had yet to harness and understand and add to my repertoire as a player."
I learned a while ago, when you play depending on emotion and allow that to rule you as you step out onto the ice, maybe one time out of 10 you're going to have the game of a lifetime, get off the ice and say, 'Wow, that was the greatest game I've ever played.' But nine times out of 10, you aren't going to feel great about the outcome, because it'll be too much about what was surging through you at the time and not enough about what your brain is telling you to do.
”-- Caitlin Cahow
Cahow had unfinished off-ice business of her own in the meantime. Driven, inquisitive and organized, she comes from a down-to-earth family that placed a premium on education and culture. "I didn't want her to go to boarding school, but she had to, to play hockey," Kinder said. "I told her she could go if she kept taking violin lessons. That was our deal, and it's the only deal we ever made. Honestly, all I ever had to do with her was put her in the car and take her where she had to go."
For a hockey player, Kinder added, Cahow is "not a bad violinist."
When she goes home now, it's not to her native Connecticut but to her parents' home in the picturesque island community of Vinalhaven off the Maine coast.
Her father, Elton, who died of cancer when she was 11, was a surgeon, "and she's a lot like him," Kinder said. "She's a lot like me, too, but she has that same 'I know what I want to do and how I'm going to get there.'" Her stepfather, Joe Adams, is an architect and artist whose two sons grew up with Cahow, and she has four older step-siblings on her father's side as well. Several members of her sprawling family are academics, and one of her brothers, Garrett, has worked as a lobsterman while pursuing an MBA.
Cahow spent her last two years at Harvard playing both NCAA and international hockey and graduated in 2008 with a degree in anthropology; she wrote her senior honors thesis in a hotel room in China during an extended stay for the world championships. Cahow's subspecialty in social anthropology allowed her to delve into everything from religion to philosophy to French language and literature, a passion of hers. Her French is fluent enough that she proudly rolled it out for an interview or two with French-Canadian media.
While Cahow was still at Harvard, she met retired tennis pro Nicole Pratt, who was then playing for the Boston Lobsters of World Team Tennis. She and Pratt bonded one summer in the gym, where they concocted a hybrid hockey-tennis dry-land workout. "I was struggling, I'd dropped in the rankings, and she was a real catalyst for me to improve my self-belief and confidence," said Pratt, now a coach for Tennis Australia.
Pratt invited Cahow to what would be her last French Open the following year. She knew Cahow would enjoy the tennis but didn't expect to get a free tour guide who came back every day with more tales of what museums and monuments and neighborhoods she'd seen, and got Pratt out once she was done playing. "I'd been to the French Open 15 years in a row and it was like I was seeing Paris for the first time," Pratt said.
"Caitlin was great at being able to put into perspective that you can have your sport and give it 100 percent but still see things through a broader lens."
Cahow has already plotted out life beyond this Olympics, and not surprisingly, it doesn't involve a lot of couch time. "I like to make sure I'm not just wallowing around trying to figure out what to do next -- I'm pretty type-A," she said. She is applying to law schools, and plans to focus on international law, human rights and public policy.
Her mother thinks it's a great career choice. "I know I've never won an argument with her," Kinder said. Neither have many world-class forwards.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.