New-look U.S. field hockey team can go from worst to first

After finishing last at the 2012 London Games, the U.S. field hockey team went through a complete overhaul, including changing training locations. Now, as it enters the quarterfinals in Rio, this team has a chance to shock everyone and grab a medal. Mana Vatsyatana/Getty Images

RIO DE JANEIRO -- After each of the U.S. field hockey team's first four games here, all of which ended in a win and two of which resulted in upsets, striker Michelle Vittese fielded questions about what sparked her squad's Olympic turnaround after finishing last overall at the 2012 London Games.

"I love the question," Vittese said Saturday, after scoring the lone goal for the Americans in their first loss of the tournament, 2-1 to Great Britain.

"It's the type of positions we put ourselves in, the uncomfortable places we go to in training, in the weight room, during conditioning and game training. We go to the ugliest places and figure out how to push through and get out of them. That shapes you as a person, makes you mentally fit and helps you get up for games like this. We're so resilient and gritty."

That training will also help Vittese and her teammates pick themselves up after their first defeat and refocus for Monday's quarterfinal match against No. 9 Germany. If the Americans want to be defined by their 2016 grittiness rather than their 2012 meltdown, Monday is their moment to prove themselves.

"We're so process oriented," U.S. captain Lauren Crandall said. "We've been through so many scenarios in tournament play that nothing is a surprise. There's no panic. That's the mental preparation we've done to get out of whatever place we've gotten ourselves into."

If it sounds like Crandall and Vittese are quoting the same philosopher, that's because they are. To a woman, the members of the U.S. team have bought in to a team philosophy and culture they began creating 3½ years ago, after the hiring of their head coach Craig Parnham, a former assistant coach for Great Britain.

"When our new coaching staff came in, we recommitted to the program, defined our culture and values and started building a family," Crandall said. "We pride ourselves on our hard work, persistence, perseverance and family."

Three years ago, Parnham wrote a lofty goal on a board at the team's practice facility and asked the women if they were ready to buy in to the idea that they could become the best in the world. He didn't care that they hadn't won an Olympic medal since 1984. He wasn't interested in who they were before his arrival; he wanted to know how good they believed they could be now that he was there.

"The coaches can push it on you all they want, but unless the players buy in and want to do the work, you won't get there," Vittese said. "The player buy-in is huge."

It meant a complete overhaul of the way they were doing everything from lifting in the weight room to practicing technical drills on the field. It meant transforming themselves from a defensive-minded squad into the most physically fit attacking team in the world. Parnham told his players that with complete commitment, they could push the boundaries of women's field hockey, but they, not him, needed to lead the change.

"The players drive the culture here," Crandall said. "Our coach's philosophy is [for Parnham] to be useless. He wants independent thinkers on his team."

But of all the changes to their program, it is their geographical move that has received the most attention. For years, the women's team trained at the U.S. Olympic training center in Chula Vista, California, an idyllic, culturally diverse San Diego suburb located close to the beach but far from home for most of the women, the majority of whom are from Pennsylvania and New Jersey. So Parnham relocated the program from Chula Vista to the field hockey hub of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where players could train year-round in a world-class indoor facility with fewer distractions than they had in Southern California.

"There's no party or night life, so it's a great place to train and focus on what we need to get done," U.S. goalie Jaclyn Briggs said. "It takes the stress off of feeling like I'm in my 20s and should be living it up or I'm missing out on things."

Lancaster is also located in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, where commitment and hard work, community and family are at the center of Amish values. The move to Lancaster allowed the women to slow down, simplify their lives and evaluate what was important.

"The Amish are community oriented," Crandall said. "It's a family-oriented culture, and we are a family. We are so supported there."

Now in Rio, 5,000 miles away from home, the women say they can still feel that support, and they believe it will carry them to the gold-medal game.

"We know you could put your head down for 3½ years and still be the first out of the Olympics," Crandall said. "That knowledge is what makes us work so hard. Our goal is to stand on that podium. Our goal is to win it all."