SOCHI, Russia -- For the better part of 12 years now, Miriam Chu has had a dream. It's the same every time. And it all seems so real. Out on the ice, dangling from her daughter Julie's neck, she sees an Olympic gold medal. Eventually, Miriam's eyes meet with her daughter's. She mouths the words, "I love you." And they both smile.
The dream has been a constant in Miriam Chu's life for more than a decade now. It's never gone away. Not after 2002, when Julie's United States team lost to Canada 3-2 in the gold-medal match in Salt Lake City. Not after Torino in 2006, when the Americans were upset in their semifinal against Sweden and had to settle for a bronze. And not even after 2010, when the Canadians blanked the U.S. 2-0, again forcing them to settle for silver.
Without question, no athlete and no family understands precisely what is at stake in Thursday's gold-medal game between the United States and Canada better than Chu and her parents. Chu is one of 11 women on the current U.S. roster who were also on the team in Vancouver. But she's the only one who also pulled a USA sweater over her head in 2006 and 2002. Each time, when the tournament was over, she boarded a plane and headed home with a piece of hardware that was a far different shade from what she had hoped.
"As a mother, you want that so bad for your child," Miriam Chu said. "You know it's her hopes and dreams. You know she's worked so hard for that moment. You just hope that it can finally come true."
Thursday is a chance for that and more. It's an opportunity for Chu to be remembered as more of a John Elway than a Jim Kelly. Throughout these Sochi Games, we've heard the stories of Erin Hamlin (luge), Noelle Pikus-Pace (skeleton) and Bode Miller (alpine skiing). We've seen each of them wave an American flag and lose control of their emotions after winning silver or bronze. There will be no such satisfaction for Chu with a loss to the Canadians.
"The reality is we came here to win the gold medal," Chu said Wednesday after her team's final full practice before they face Canada. "That's what our focus is. This is our moment. It's all about what can we do tomorrow to help achieve our goal."
Chu, who turns 32 next month, has played in more U.S. matches than anyone except former U.S. and Harvard teammate Angela Ruggiero. She's a five-time world champion, a three-time gold medalist in the Four Nations Cup and a three-time champion in the Canadian Women's Hockey League. She is the first Asian-American to wear the U.S. jersey. But even she will admit that without gold, she will feel her career is incomplete.
It's a dream that began on a chilly February morning on the campus of Choate in 1998. Chu woke up before 7 that morning to watch the United States defeat Canada 3-1 to win the first gold medal given in women's hockey.
"It was pretty special," Chu said. "I remember being like a little kid in a candy shop watching. And I'm not a morning person."
Four years later in Salt Lake City, Chu was a member of the team chasing her own gold-medal dreams. Sixteen years later and likely in her final Olympics, she's still chasing that dream. Before the team left for Sochi, four members of the '98 team spoke to the current group about the bond a team has to have before it can win gold.
"The team chemistry they had was their extra player on the ice," Chu said. "That's what they were able to lean on as they went on this journey. That's what we've tried to focus on."
Four years ago in Vancouver, Chu was an alternate captain. This time around, a little bit slower, a little bit older, she's accepted a role as a defensive-minded forward on the fourth line and as a role model to younger teammates. It's unlikely she will score a goal in Thursday's game, but the leadership she brings is just as important.
"She just brings experience," said U.S. coach Katey Stone, who was also Chu's coach at Harvard. "She's in the right place at the right time, ready to make plays. She overcommunicates with her teammates. She helps them stay calmer on so many levels. She's a caring soul. We wouldn't be here without her."
Says 22-year-old forward Amanda Kessel, noting Chu's work ethic: "You know what you're going to get out of her every day. I think that's something us younger players really admire in her."
Following Wednesday's practice, Chu and her teammates insisted that this gold-medal game would be different. Captain Meghan Duggan went as far as to insist she was "110 percent confident" in her team and what they were on the verge of accomplishing.
Why all the conviction? Chu says this group has been pushed like no other team in the past. After a disappointing loss to Finland in the Four Nations Cup in the fall, Stone put her team through two weeks of workouts Chu described as the most challenging of her career. Two and a half hours on the ice each day filled with vicious one-on-one battles. Then another hour and a half of off-ice training.
"We needed to change directions," Chu said. "We needed to start working harder in practice and holding each other more accountable. We battled as if we were opponents. We wanted to win. We grew a lot in that period and learned that we can withstand a lot more than maybe we thought before."
But even in Sochi there was still growing to do. After last week's listless 3-2 loss to Canada in the preliminary round, a game in which the U.S. played frustratingly passive at times, Stone lit into her team, challenging them to step up and not be afraid of the moment. In Monday's dominating 6-1 win over Sweden, it appeared the message was received.
Now comes the biggest test of all. The Canadians. Again. With gold on the line. Again.
"We've dreamed of this moment," she said. "But a part of that dream, you realize the effort, the preparation, the behind-the-scenes moments. You have to go through all that. Tomorrow is our time to have peace with that and know it's one more time to put on the USA hockey jersey, represent our country and earn it."
And of course watching it all from the stands will be Miriam Chu, hoping that 12 years of dreams will finally transform to reality.
"When it happens, I know I'll be crying," she said. "[Julie] is so patriotic. She wants to bring home gold for her country. It will be such a proud moment for me, for Julie and our entire family."