Women's ice hockey is still a relatively new addition to the Olympic movement, first introduced in Nagano, Japan at the 1998 Winter Olympics. This year, the U.S. Women's Hockey team is one of eight squads competing for a gold medal at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada.
Forward Julie Chu is the first player of Asian descent on the U.S. Women's Hockey Team, and is competing in her third Olympics. "We're really young. We have six returning Olympians out of the 23 person roster, so out with that youth brings a lot of energy and excitement," she said.
Since the team began competing together last year, one of the challenges for Coach Mark Johnson is getting his young first-time Olympians ready for the world stage. "When you step on the ice, and the entire world is watching you," Johnson said. "You can talk about those things, but you don't know how kids are going to react until they are put in the setting."
Johnson speaks from experience.
He played on the U.S. Men's Team at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics and scored two goals to help the U.S. defeat the Soviet Union in what became known as the "Miracle on Ice." That paved the way to a Gold medal win against Finland.
"You've just got to eliminate all the distractions, and the most important thing is what happens on the ice," Johnson said.
There will be plenty of distractions in Vancouver, and a lot of fans rooting against the Americans.
Jesse Vetter, the team's goaltender, says she welcomes the attention. She's making her Olympic debut. "It doesn't matter if the fans are screaming against you or for you, it's going to be against us when we are in Vancouver, I just love having people in the stands," she said.
The road to the Gold medal in Vancouver could very well run through team Canada. The U.S. women faced off against the Canadians in December, losing 2-1.
But Angela Ruggerio, one of four team captains, says she believes there will be more pressure on Canada at the Olympics. "They're hosting the Olympics, they're the defending gold medalist, and hockey is the IR national sport," she said. "So in a way, we are the underdog."
"It's definitely a huge rivalry, it's always a good game, you never know who's going to come out on top," Jesse Vetter said.
Win or lose, Coach Johnson is more concerned about the journey that brought the team together. "When we get all said and done and we get on a plane out of Vancouver, the group and the support staff can look back on these previous six months and look back and have a smile on their face and really have enjoyed the process, enjoyed the journey," Johnson stated.
Ruggerio agrees. This is her fourth Olympics. She says her teammates are more than just athletes, they are also role models.
"It is a tremendous opportunity for our sport to be visible, and to have other young girls look up to us," Ruggerio said.
The U.S. Women's team hits the ice on Sunday February 14th, against China.