It might sound odd for an American athlete, but USA field hockey star Lauren Crandall is used to playing the role of the darkhorse. Crandall, a defender, and 24 of the nation’s top field hockey players are gearing up for participation in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
“As a team we love the reputation we have. It’s become part of our mentality,” Crandall told Excelle Sports in an interview prior to leaving for Rio.
So has hard work. Speaking to Crandall during a break between the day’s two scheduled practices, the long-reigning USA captain talked about the commitment required not only to make the Olympic squad, but also to see the team improve on past performances.
“Other national field hockey teams know us as the most fit, and as a tough opponent tactically,” Crandall said. In addition to a daily two-a-day practice schedule from now until the first week of July, when the final roster of 16 players is announced, USA field hockey players practice more than shooting and swinging the stick. Speed and pace, Crandall says, are part of the mix.
“The sport has gotten faster in recent years,” Crandall contends. “Other teams know our high tempo as a very fast team, but maybe haven’t been afraid of our skills. But, we’ve moved up the rankings quickly (this year) and we’re their radar.
“Yet being that ‘underdog’ makes you want to put your head down and work harder toward the goal.”
That ultimate goal, contesting for an Olympic gold medal this summer, is sharply on Team USA’s radar.
Previously, Crandall led the U.S. to two Olympic Games. In London 2012, Crandall and other seasoned players like forward Paige Selenski put in a good performance but took 12th place overall. At Beijing 2008, the U.S. took 8th place after missing the previous three Olympic Games. Crandall herself has over 200 caps under her belt and in her time has competed on five continents.
Currently ranked No. 7 in the world, the U.S. is known, Crandall said, for their finesse and physical style. They’re also known for the occasional big upset.
In October 2011, Crandall and the U.S. won gold at that year’s Pan American Games. Starting the tourney with opening 5-0 salvo over Mexico, followed by a 9-0 romp over Cuba, the U.S. roared past Canada semifinals with a 4-2 win, before defeating the favorites, Argentina, winners of the 2010 field hockey World Cup, in surprise 4-2 win.
In taking down the competition that year, the U.S. qualified for the the 2012 Olympics Games. Crandall says that it adds an additional spark to the longstanding rivalry between Argentina and USA Field Hockey.
“Argentina is always ranked higher than us,” Crandall said about the world’s No 2 ranked team. “We play them so often, and the Pan Am Games have been one place we’ve outgunned them.” The US also more recently upped the ante, again beating Argentina 2-1 in the final of the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto.
Other lethal competition sitting at the top of the rankings includes the Netherlands. Regarded as the most successful national team in the history of the sport, the Netherlands currently stands at No 1, having also won gold at both of the last two Olympic Games. They have also won the FIH World Cup seven times, most recently in 2014, and have failed to win a gold, silver or bronze medal in the competition once since its inception.
“We know the competition is tough.” Crandall said. “And to say that there is a weak spot on any team must be taken grain of salt.”
“The Netherlands—as a team—they don’t have just one threat, they have many. And, so much history and depth,” Crandall said.
After London 2012 and the 12th place finish, there were changes at the top of USA Field Hockey. The organization appointed Craig Farnham, a two-time Olympian player for Great Britain as head coach, in January 2013. Parnham’s career included a defensive role as a player in the 2000 and 2004 men’s Olympics competition. Later as a coach he steered Great Britain to place 6th in 2008, later bagging the bronze medal at London 2012.
Crandall thinks that USA Field Hockey has gotten a lift from the new staff and a more comprehensive regimen of training.
— FIH (@FIH_Hockey) July 31, 2016
“People see players of top professional sports, like the NBA, as elite athletes,” Crandall said. “We are too.” Along with an increased emphasis on technique and game strategy, Crandall thinks Team USA’s keen focus on strength training and stamina gives them a slight edge.
There is also a new paradigm within the program, Crandall says, compared to years past.
“When Craig Parhnam became our new head coach, after 2012,” Crandall said, “he brought in a player-driven culture, and it was different than what a lot of us had experienced before, even in a high performance setting.”
Specifically, Crandall says that hardest part of being an elite athlete is not the hard work, but the monotony of the things athletes do to sharpen their saw and be the best. Synergy between players helps.
“Monday through Saturday a lot of what we do is the exact same. Lifting, conditioning, et cetera,” Crandall said. “But what differs with a player-driven culture has a lot to do with communication and trust.” Whether Crandall, Selenski or one of the USA’s newer players stands out in Rio, Crandall added that their teamwork and remains the first order of business.
“We’ve never engineered our team to rely on one standout player for everything. No one’s expected ever to save the day,” Crandall said. “Individually, we look to each other in every capacity. This is the major strength of our team.”