The first time the U.S. won an Olympic medal in women's field hockey was in 1984. That was also the last time the country medaled in the sport.
Williams field hockey and lacrosse coach Chris Mason was a member of the 1984 USA women's field hokcey team and was key to the victories—including a tie-breaker shootout against Australia—that led to the team's bronze-medal finish.
It's an experience fresh in her mind and that of Olympic teammate Leslie Milne '79, especially on the eve of the 2012 Summer Games in London.
It was Mason's field hockey coach at Penn State who first suggested she try out of the Olympic team, back in 1976. She did so a year later, as the United States Field Hockey Association was conducting tryout camps for both the 1980 and 1984 games.
"The camps were so tough that we used to walk up or down the handicap ramps whenever we could to avoid stairs, because our muscles ached so much," Mason remembers.
At the A-level camp to which Mason had advanced, 16 players would be chosen for a first team that would travel to world events, and 16 more would be selected for a second team that would play a more modest schedule (eight players from that camp wouldn't end up on a national team).
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Mason had been singled out for her passing skills during the camp, but she was convinced she'd be lucky to make even the second team. "Everyone was always saying things like, 'don't worry, you'll make one of the teams,' and that just made it all the more stressful," Mason says.
At the unveiling of the team rosters, Mason's hopes were dashed when she didn't see her name on the second team roster. "I didn't know how I was supposed to react to not making the team…and then my eyes wandered to the left side of the paper to the First Team, and I saw my name, but I was sure it was a mistake," she says. It wasn't, of course.
After her selection to the team, she graduated from Penn State in 1978 and became head coach of field hockey and lacrosse at Boston University, where she later found a training partner for the national team in Milne, who was coaching and taking courses at Harvard.
Both Mason and Milne had been multi-sport athletes in college. Mason competed in basketball, lacrosse, and field hockey at Penn State, while Milne played basketball (captain, 1979) for four years, soccer (club), track, and lacrosse one year, in addition to four years of field hockey for the Ephs.
The Mason and Milne routine found them meeting at BU's turf field at 6 a.m. with other team candidates living in the area. Mason and Milne were there every day, not wanting to let each other down and it paid off for them.
Their combined efforts at BU improved their stickhandling, kept them in shape, strengthened their bond and got them selected to the 1980 Olympic, which positioned them to make the 1984 team.
Mason and Milne played in Canada, Europe, Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia in preparation for the 1980 and 1984 Olympic Games.
Politics would interfere in their plans. President Jimmy Carter imposed a U.S. boycott of the 1980 games in Moscow to protest Russia's invasion of Afghanistan.
So, Mason and Milne vowed to continue training to prep for the 1984 Olympic Games, and it paid off. Both were starters on the 1984 team.
|Leslie Milne '79|
Milne says she will never forget the opening of the Los Angeles Games or the field hockey medal ceremony. "Both were amazing," Milne says. "[For the] opening ceremonies, I was in the fifth row. I remember how loud it was when we entered and how cool it was to see security clapping for us. Everyone was so happy, participants and spectators alike! Every kid wants to be in the Olympics. What a thrill to be lucky enough to do it. It is as great as it seems on TV; goose bumps for months!"
That year, Holland took the gold medal, Germany, the silver. Australia's 2-0 loss to Holland in the final contest of the round robin tied them with the U.S., so a shoot-out immediately following the Holland-Australia game would determine the bronze winner.
After the game ended, the U.S. team raced to put on their uniforms and get in some practice penalty strokes for the shootout. "It was very nerve-wracking trying to focus on the practice penalty shots because we just wanted to go do the shootout and win," Mason remembers.
She and four of her teammates made all of their 10 shots. All 10 Aussie shots were on target, but American goalie Gwen Cheeseman stopped five, giving the U.S. the win, 10-5
At the medal ceremony afterward, no one had brought an American flag. "Since it was a last-minute thing that we won a medal, they did not even have a U.S. flag ready to raise so they had to find one," recalls Milne.
"We were so happy to win we would've waited days for a flag to show up," Mason says.
Today, Milne, an attending physician at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston's Emergency Services Department, reflects on going from a Division III program to the Olympics. "Most everyone else had gone to big, field hockey powerhouses (Penn State, UMass, West Chester, Ursinus),"she says. "It was a completely new world for me after being so academically oriented for so many years. I had had no athletic pressures/expectations while in college, and it was amazing to suddenly have such high standards and attention to detail applied to sports, the way I had had to do with academics. It was fun and challenging to try to keep at a world-class level. It made me believe I could do anything I worked hard enough at. I was very fortunate to have the opportunity I had. It changed my world."
Chris Mason is entering her 29th year of coaching at Williams, a job for which Milne had encouraged her to apply back in 1980. She is the longest-serving female head coach in Williams' history, and a member of the U.S. Field Hockey Hall of Fame.
1984 USA Olympic Field Hockey Scores:
USA – Holland – 2-1 loss
USA - New Zealand -- 2-0 win
USA - Canada - 4-1 win
USA - Australia - 1-3 loss
USA - Germany - 1-1 tie
USA wins shoot-out 10-5 over Australia