Hockey Heavies

Katelyn Falgowski and Caitlin Van Sickle may have worn Carolina Blue on their college team, but they’re still Blue Hens. Now they belong to the nation.

#Rio2016: The next U.S. Women’s Field Hockey games take place Wednesday, Aug. 10, at 4 p.m., Thursday, Aug. 11, at 6:30 p.m. and Saturday, Aug. 13, at 5 p.m.

No event for a field hockey player has more symbolism than the Olympics, and those who reach that level are more than elite; they are blessed. Good health, timing and talent converge to create the rarest of opportunities. Those who experience it once are fortunate. A second trip to the pinnacle is sports’ Powerball ticket. Anything more than that? We’re talking extraordinary.

When Katelyn Falgowski parades into Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana Stadium with the other U.S. athletes during the opening ceremonies of the 2016 Summer Games, she will be making her third Olympic appearance. While she thirsts to bring home a medal, she is also aware of the perspective she will have as someone for whom the games have become a continuing saga.

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“When you get a taste of it, you understand why people don’t want to retire,” she says. “It’s an amazing atmosphere to be in.”

Falgowski, part of the Team USA orbit for 13 years, is without question one of the more senior members of the American field hockey program. Her presence in Rio will help stabilize younger players. 

“This time, I have a little more experience with the distractions,” she says. “It’s not purely a business trip, but we have worked so hard that we have to do what it takes to do our best.”

Falgowski graduated from St. Mark’s High School in 2008, the same year she made her first Olympic appearance, in Beijing. She and Caitlin Van Sickle, a Wilmington native who graduated from Tower Hill School, will represent Delaware in Rio. 

They will do it as part of a national team that has climbed from the depths of a 12th (and last) place finish at the 2012 London Summer Games to seventh in the world, thanks to a fourth place in the 2014 World Cup and a gold medal in the 2015 Pan American Games. The team enters the ’16 Olympics poised to perform far better than it did four years ago.

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As the two Delawareans on the roster, Van Sickle and Falgowski are keeping alive the sport’s strong tradition in the state, which produces prep players who go on to contribute at the collegiate level, and in the cases of Van Sickle and Falgowski, beyond.

After graduating from Tower Hill in 2009, Van Sickle, a Wilmington native, was a three-time all-American at North Carolina (2010, 2011 and 2012) and was part of the ’09 Tar Heels’ national title team. The defender joined the National Team in 2013 and, as of early June, had appeared in 51 international contests for the United States. She was part of the U.S. team that won the Pan-Am Games gold last year and should be a key member of the squad in Rio.

“She is one of the most versatile players on the team,” Falgowski says. “She is able to play wherever she is needed on the field. Over the past few years, she has come into her own. Her strength and fitness levels are high, and so are her skills. Her stick always seems to be in the right area. She’s tenacious.”

Tower Hill is one of the state’s top field hockey programs. Van Sickle was a sophomore there when she began taking the sport seriously. By the time she was a senior, she had offers from colleges, but only one school interested her: North Carolina. 

Coach Karen Shelton offered her a spot on the team. Shelton promised Van Sickle nothing, but she saw quickly that the young player was destined for big things. After playing in a summer showcase of the nation’s best amateurs, Van Sickle earned an invitation to the National Team in 2013. She has grown more confident and successful ever since.

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“The game moves faster than it does in college, and it took a little bit of getting used to,” Van Sickle says. “But once you get a couple games under your belt, you get comfortable.”

And she is excited to represent her country in the sport’s most important competition. “It’s the ultimate,” she says. “I can’t imagine what it’s going to feel like standing there before our first game. All the work that I put in the last three years of my life will be worth it. It doesn’t seem like a long time, but day-to-day, but it is.”

Falgowski will see those three years and raise Van Sickle 10 more. She was only 14 when she earned a spot on the U.S. under-20 team and was by far the youngest player on the roster. Another Tar Heel, who graduated in 2011, Falgowski has plenty of impressive entries on her résumé, including a 2011 World All-Star honor and a nomination for the FIH Young Player of the Year Award that goes to the world’s best player under 23 years old. 

Though Falgowski had to overcome a torn ligament in her knee six years ago and battled a debilitating concussion around the same time, she remains one of the most tenacious midfielders, one capable of neutralizing some of the world’s best players. “She is a very, very consistent player,” says Van Sickle. “She’s skilled offensively and defensively. She’s one of the leaders on the team and is a real free spirit.”

Falgowski graduated from St. Mark’s in 2008. She brings a true veteran’s perspective to the quest for a medal in Rio. Though she is still able to appreciate the magic of the Olympics, she is more concerned with how the team is preparing and whether it will be at its best.

“We’re not trying to be anyone else but ourselves,” she says. “We have the goal of being a united team and trying to break the ceiling in field hockey. Having these aspirations makes us work harder.” 

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