Sunshine Sisters

Residency Program Provides Olympic Hopefuls A Chance To Train And Bond In The Florida Sun
Brian Lester




Sunlight pushes through the windows in front of the Florida Hospital Center Ice rink on a December morning in Wesley Chapel.

Outside the arena, it's cold, at least by Sunshine State standards, with temperatures only expected to hit 60. So there probably won't be any team bonding time by the pool - one of the U.S. Women's National Team's favorite activities - after practice at the beautiful Saddlebrook Resort.

Still, this is the life. These athletes are loving their time in Florida as they gear up for the Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. It beats the cold of say, Boston or Lake Placid. Or even Minnesota, where Dani Cameranesi calls home.

"It's nice not to have to wake up to the frigid cold," said Cameranesi, a two-time national champion with the Golden Gophers who is vying for a spot on her first Olympic team. "The weather forces us to get outside and do things, to take time and relax and regather mentally and physically."

Regathering is key for a group of players working tirelessly to prepare for the biggest moment of their hockey lives. There is no better place to do it than Florida, where the players have opportunities to be outdoors and enjoy their surroundings here in the Tampa area.

"People go on vacations to places like this," said Brianna Decker, who competed for Team USA in the 2014 Olympics. "We're lucky enough to be able to live and train here 24-7 during this residency."

As another day of practice begins, these Olympic hopefuls hit the ice and take aim at the pucks that have been scattered across the freshly groomed surface. The sounds of skates carving up the ice and sticks smacking pucks echo through the arena.

Players fly down the ice during a fast-paced shooting drill, following up their shots and look to punch in the rebound, applying as much pressure on the goalie as possible.

In between each drill, head coach Robb Stauber provides reinforcement and reassurance on a dry erase board on the glass near the bench or during a team huddle at center ice.

Everything counts when the ultimate goal is bringing home the first Olympic gold in 20 years.

Five-on-five situations and passing drills are also part of the nearly two-hour practice, which is followed by another hour of off-ice training.

Physically, the players are pushed to the limit. But that isn't the toughest part.

"Definitely the mental aspect is the most challenging," said Kali Flanagan, who is hoping to play in her first Olympics. "You are trying to be focused and dialed in every day, and that is probably the hardest part."

Challenging indeed, but the players benefit from the unbreakable bond they have forged in Florida. They live in the same resort, allowing them to hang out together away from the rink. They spend their time in a variety of ways, be it watching movies, having dinner together, taking an art class, visiting Universal Studios, playing golf or laying out by the pool soaking up the Florida sun.

"Our team chemistry off the ice carries over to what we've been able to do on the ice," Cameranesi said. "The team chemistry is great. We are around each other constantly. We have so much fun together. It feels like we are a family."

Decker knows how fortunate the team is to be here. The team spent most of its time in Boston getting ready for the last Olympics, and while it's a great city, it didn't allow for the same opportunities the team has down here.

"When you live next to each other, you can go out the door and hang out at someone else's apartment," Decker said. "It's a lot easier to hang out, whereas in Boston, we were spread out and you didn't really want to go out and get stuck in traffic to hang out. The set-up here is awesome."

Teammate Meghan Duggan, a two-time silver medalist, said the culture created even by doing something as simple as watching television together or taking an after dinner walk, have been instrumental to the team's success.

"This year we have a unique opportunity to be together and be training together day in and day out," said the team's captain. "It's all about the culture that is created within our locker room and the relationships that we build that will propel us onto the ice. I love it. I think it's an awesome opportunity for us and we've definitely been taking advantage of it."

Decker tries to take advantage of the free moments when possible, be it out on the town or within the 40-acre resort that features three pools, 45 tennis courts, two golf courses and volleyball and basketball courts.

The activity that consumes their free time depends on how the day went.

"A lot of times you are wiped out after a long training day, so you might just lay out by the pool and relax," she said. "The great thing is we are enjoying a place we've never trained at before and we are bonding over things other than hockey."

A little more than three hours after practice began, the players are ready to head out into the sunshine. The excitement of the Olympics is building, the team one step closer to its dream of getting an opportunity to avenge the overtime loss four years ago in Sochi, Russia.

"The ending of 2014 was a disappointment, and the girls who were there took a lot from that experience, as far has how to prepare, dealing with distractions like media and family," Decker said. "We have to stay focused and take it one game at a time."

As important as being at their best is for the players, they haven't taken this residency period for granted, as they savor each day as they work toward their ultimate goal.

"Any time you have an opportunity like this, it's really special and hard to put into words," Flanagan said. "It's gone by so fast, but you remember the lessons you learned and the memories you made as a team. It's been an amazing experience."


Brian Lester is a freelance writer based in Pensacola, Fla.




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