Gophers reflect on Olympic experience

The University of Minnesota totaled five medals at the Winter Games.
Olympic silver medalists Anne Schleper and Lee Stecklein attended Friday night's gopher women's hockey game against St. Cloud State. Schleper is a recent alumna, and Stecklein is an enrolled freshman.
March 05, 2014

University of Minnesota students and alumni won more medals than 69 of 88 countries competing at the 2014 Winter Olympics, thanks to the U.S. women’s hockey team’s performance in Sochi, Russia.

Lee Stecklein and Amanda Kessel, who are redshirting this season, and former players Megan Bozek, Gigi Marvin and Anne Schleper all brought medals home.

Team USA won a silver medal at the Winter Games after losing to Team Canada in the gold-medal game.

“It was the experience of a lifetime,” Stecklein said. “And obviously, it didn’t turn out exactly the way we all wanted at the end, but [it was] still something I’ll remember forever.”

The U.S. women’s hockey team trained together for months before the Olympics and developed a close bond during that time.

In December, as part of the team’s “Bring on the World Tour,” they traveled across the U.S. and Canada, with stops in Calgary, Alberta; Grand Forks, N.D.; St. Paul; and Toronto.

“That stretch on the road, I thought we got a lot closer as a team, and that was probably my favorite month training with everybody,” Stecklein said.

Schleper said the team spent a lot of time together during the Olympics, especially between games. She said being able to share those moments with her teammates was one of the most memorable parts of the experience.

Andy Kent, who currently serves as the Gophers women’s hockey team’s goaltending coach, also traveled to the Olympics but helped coach Team Finland. Kent, an American, went over with former Gophers Mira Jalosuo and Noora Räty.

Finland didn’t have a goaltending coach, and Kent had worked with Räty for years while she was with the Gophers and after she graduated.

In turn, he was named goaltending coach before ever stepping foot in the country.

“[Räty] heavily influenced the decision to get me to go over there,” Kent said, adding that Finland had only a week of training camp before the Olympics started.

Kent said when he was working with Räty and Team Finland, it was “just like working [at Minnesota].”

Still, not knowing Finnish was an adjustment. Kent said team meetings and team meals were a little weird.

“You’re just kind of like, ‘I hope I don’t need to know anything in this meeting,’” he said, adding that Räty had to fill him in on what was said.

Kent said even though it was weird seeing the Gophers in Team USA jerseys and being on the other side, it started to feel normal over time.

“I only worked with Team Finland,” Kent said. “I felt like that was my home — that was where I belonged.”

The Olympic experience

While the U.S. women’s hockey team didn’t have many opportunities to see other events at the Winter Games, it did have the chance to take in some of the men’s hockey games.

Stecklein and Schleper said the U.S. men’s game against Russia, in which T.J. Oshie won the game for the Americans in an eight-round shootout, was an event that stood out.

“The Russian fans get so involved in the game,” Stecklein said. “They were cheering against the U.S., [but] it was still cool to see people that excited. And then to have the U.S. come out with the win, it was the perfect ending.”

While in Sochi, the team also befriended ice dancers Charlie White and Meryl Davis.

White and Davis won a gold medal, and Stecklein said their entire floor was celebrating the pair’s success.

Stecklein also had the chance to meet Zach Parise of the Minnesota Wild — Team USA’s captain.

Kent roomed next to Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask, and he said he would see current and former NHL stars frequently while at the Winter Games.

“You go up every night in the lounge … and you’re sitting on the couch next to Teemu Selanne,” Kent said. “In any other setting … it would be mind-blowing, but it was just like, ‘It’s going to happen again tomorrow.’”

Still, there were times when it wasn’t exactly normal.

“The craziest thing is when you’re eating lunch or dinner,” Kent said, “and you’ve got [Zdeno] Chara behind you, and you’ve got [Sidney] Crosby sitting at the end of the table.”

Not playing, but still participating

Natalie Darwitz, a former Gophers star, also made the journey to Sochi. It was her fourth straight time at the Olympics
but her first time not competing.

Darwitz served as a women’s hockey commentator for NBC.

She said she laughed when NBC called her, but  she said they talked her into going to the East Coast to audition.

Darwitz had no previous broadcasting experience but jumped at the chance to go to Sochi.

“I was very nervous, anxious about it,” she said. “It’s not like it’s a local TV station. You’re with NBC, and you’re going to be on national TV.”

That was an opportunity she couldn’t miss.

“If I would have passed it up, I think I would have regretted it, even though it was way out of my comfort zone,” Darwitz said.

Darwitz, who now coaches girls’ hockey at Lakeville South High School, competed for Team USA in 2002, 2006 and 2010.

“It was my first Olympics not as a hockey player, so it was a little different,” she said. “If I couldn’t compete, that would be the next-best thing. So I’m very fortunate.”

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