by Tom Utescher
Mount St. Joseph Academy graduates Katie (’08) and Julia (’09) Reinprecht can hardly remember a time when they weren’t immersed in the sport of field hockey.
Their mother, Tina, operates Mystx Field Hockey Club, one of the most successful club organizations in the country. Their older sister, Sarah, (Mount ’05) was a junior national team player and a collegiate standout at Princeton University, the school that her younger siblings also chose.
Now, a lifelong commitment by the two sisters has culminated in the ultimate achievement, the opportunity to play for the United States at the 2012 Olympic Games.
After spending the past year in training with a pool of two dozen elite players who were candidates for the team, Katie, 23, said “It was definitely a relief to hear that I was going. It’s also pretty awesome that I get to share this whole experience with my sister.”
Julia, who turns 21 this week (July 12), is the youngest player on the 16-woman roster, and her memory of the moment she found out she’d be an Olympian is especially vivid. Immediately following a national High Performance showcase at the University of Maryland, the Olympic verdict was given privately on Saturday, June 9, and was announced publicly two days later. One by one, the players filed in to hear the news from Lee Bodimeade, the Australian native and former Olympic silver medalist who has headed the U.S. women’s program since 2005.
“You had to come in through one side of the gymnasium and leave through the other, so you didn’t really see anyone,” the younger Reinprecht recalled. “I said, ‘Wow, that was the most nervous walk ever,’ and he said, ‘Well, hopefully we can make your walk out better. You’ve made the team, congratulations.’ That’s pretty much how it went.”
At the other end of the age spectrum is 33-year-old mother-of-two Keli Smith Puzo, one of seven returning players from the U.S. team that played in Beijing in 2008. Team USA won a bronze medal at the 1984 Olympics, but has never claimed a gold or silver. It was hoped that a relatively young 2008 squad could reach the medal round in China, but a disappointing eighth-place finish was the result.
With the seven 2008 veterans now joined by a number of players in their early 20’s, the 2012 squad is thought to be a successful amalgam of experience and fresh enthusiasm.
“It’s a good balance,” Julia said, “and I think that’s what makes this team so strong. I was part of the group of young players, and although we have different mentalities at times, the older players accepted us. I think we brought a lot of energy, and the older players could calm us down if we got a little too frantic.”
Katie noted, “There’s a new element of speed and talent in ball-handling with the young players, and the veterans have the consistency, which is so valuable. It’s amazing at this level how much all the little things are magnified in importance.”
Earning their invitation to the 2012 Olympics last October by winning the Pan Am Games in Guadalajara, Mexico (one of a number of “Continental” championships and secondary qualifying tournaments around the world), the Americans turned some heads. That was largely due to Team USA’s 4-2 victory in the finals over Argentina, which came into the event as the top-ranked team in the world. While only the winner at the Pan Am Games gains an automatic Olympic berth, Argentina was later awarded what amounted to an at-large bid to compete in London.
Naturally, the Reinprecht sisters excelled in both junior club hockey (their Mystx teams won national championships at several age levels) and in the scholastic arena, and during the period they were at Mount St. Joseph, there were other talented players around them, as well. The Magic won four straight Catholic Academies championships and two PIAA District 1 titles, finishing as Class AAA (large school) state runner-up in 2006 and reaching the semifinals the following year, when Katie was a senior and Julia, a junior.
Coming up through the ranks, the sisters gained an increasing appreciation for their Pennsylvania upbringing. The state produces high-level field hockey players like McDonald’s churns out burgers. Of 16 members of the 2012 Olympic team, nine hail from the eastern half of Pennsylvania, and two are from southern New Jersey. The Reinprechts have known one of their U.S. teammates for most of their hockey careers – Wissahickon High School and University of Maryland star Katie O’Donnell.
“I think the competitiveness at such a young age here just helps people progress so much faster,” Julia opined. “Then when you get to high school, if you play a good schedule you’re always going up against excellent players.”
“I guess I’m lucky to have grown up where I did,” Katie agreed. “It’s impressive the way that the high school coaches and the club coaches develop so many strong players.”
Moving on to Princeton, Katie was selected as Ivy League Player of the Year as both a freshman and sophomore, and it wasn’t long before Julia joined her in the Tigers’ starting line-up.
After that, there were some bumps in the road for the elder sibling. In the middle of her junior season, Katie suffered a broken leg, and the injury jinx wasn’t done with her yet.
A little over a year later, while in training with the national team in December of 2011, she was struck in the face by a hockey stick, which broke her jaw. She returned to action towards the end of January. Fortunately, both sisters can always count on in-house medical guidance from their father, James, who is a physician.
The Reinprechts were among half-a-dozen of the younger candidates for the team who took a year off from college, relocating to California last summer in order to spend many long months honing their skills and raising their fitness levels to unprecedented heights at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, near San Diego. Initially lodged in a motel, the sisters soon moved to a house on scenic Coronado Island, along with six of their colleagues.
All received a stipend from the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Field Hockey for living expenses. Many of the older players also benefited from advertising contracts with hockey stick manufacturers, but those still under the aegis of the NCAA weren’t permitted to enter into such agreements.
Of the four players from the Princeton program who went west to train, the Reinprechts made the team and their Tiger teammate Michelle Cesan was named as one of two alternates.
“It makes it so much easier to improve when you have that level of competition around you and you’re going hard every day,” pointed out Katie, who settled in California soon after the U.S. National Team played in the Champions Challenge tournament in Ireland in June of 2011.
“The volume of high-tempo practices is unprecedented, and there’s all the lifting and running in between,” she expanded. “You’re expected to be at the top of your game all the time, even when you’re exhausted. You just have to force your body to get through it, and from week to week you can see it getting a little easier. Nowadays, you see people focusing more and more on the importance of nutrition and of recovering properly. We had a lot of informative sessions with experts in those areas.”
Julia observed, “You really have to love the sport when you make that commitment, because you’re going to be immersed in it for so long.
“When I first decided to take the year off, I had no idea what to expect,” continued the team’s youngest athlete. “I barely knew what position I would play. As I adjusted to the stringent training regimen and I got more comfortable with everything, I found a defensive role [right halfback] that suited me, and they liked me playing there.”
Her sister Katie landed in a midfield spot, one oriented towards helping out the offense as well as patrolling the center of the pitch. She, too, had to settle in and see how the pieces of the team fell into place.
“The controllable thing,” she said, “was my fitness, and making sure I could withstand fast-paced games repeatedly. Also, you’re always just working on basic skills. It still comes down to who can trap and pass the best, who can be the firmest on the ground, who can receive a bouncing ball under pressure. The team that makes the least amount of mistakes is usually the one that’s going to prevail.
“The last piece,” she went on, “was scoring; being a threat and creating opportunities. I quickly realized I was probably going to be more of an attacking player. So I worked on refining those skills around the circle because it’s going to be important to make the most of our opportunities.”
Julia related “Once I got my position settled in the backfield, I concentrated on marking, which our team puts a huge emphasis on. I had to learn to be more physical. There’s definitely a physical element that comes into play at the international level, and you need to deal with it. On this team, I don’t dribble as much; it’s more receive and pass.”
She added, “I fly on the defensive corners [directly charging the opposing player who is expected to shoot on these set plays], and I insert the ball on offensive corners, so I’m constantly focusing on getting my running lines right and keeping my push-out accurate.”
Sports psychologists have helped out with mental preparation, as have the Olympic veterans on the team.
“We like to talk things out,” Julia revealed. “The older players told us ‘You know what nerves are like? Well, expect them to the 10th degree when you’re there.’ The stadium in London holds around 15,000 people, and the games are selling out and there’s a lot of media attention. With field hockey in the U.S., you just don’t have that.
“There will be a lot of distractions; people trying to get tickets to games, the celebrities that will be in the Olympic Village,” she said. “You want to enjoy yourself, but you also need to stay focused.”
The 12 hockey teams that have qualified for the Olympics have been divided into two pools, and each squad will play the other members of its pool once. The contests take place every other day, alternating with the men’s field hockey teams at Riverbank Arena in London, a venue boasting a vivid blue field with pink borders. The teams will be seeded according to their win/loss records at the conclusion of pool play, with the top two in each group moving into the semifinal round, and the others squaring off for places five through 12.
A familiar foe, Argentina, joins the U.S. in Pool B, which also includes Germany, the 2004 Olympic gold medalist, along with Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. In various international competitions over the past year or so, the Americans have faced all of these opponents at least once. Neither of the Reinprechts has played against the Netherlands, the defending Olympic champion, which is joined in Pool A by Great Britain, China, Korea, Japan, and Belgium.
“Every team has a different style, and you try to learn the nuances of how they play before the game,” Katie said. “You watch plenty of video so you don’t have a lot of surprises when you get out on the field.”
“It’s a lot different being with this team,” she observed. “With most of the teams I’ve been on I’ve been used to covering the whole field. Here, everyone’s so skilled that we each play an equal part. Before the game even starts your responsibilities are pretty clearly defined, so you just put everything into doing your job and you trust in your teammates.”
Katie Reinprecht wears uniform number 14 for the U.S., and Julia is number 12. Team USA will open competition against Germany on July 29, and then will play Argentina on July 31, Australia on August 2, New Zealand on August 4, and South Africa on August 6. The semifinal bouts and the playoffs for the lower places will take place on August 8, with the gold and bronze medal games on August 10.