All grown up, ex-Terp O'Donnell emerges as face of U.S. field hockey

Katie O'Donnell admits she wasn't always the best teammate when she joined the U.S. women's field hockey team in 2005.

O'Donnell said she was immature and unaware. While her fellow players helped load all the equipment on the team bus before road trips, O'Donnell took her seat and waited. She figured she was just there for a ride, that her responsibilities were limited to practices and games.

It was an understandable oversight. O'Donnell, after all, was a 16-year-old high school junior. She didn't know how to drive a car, much less grasp the duties of a world-class athlete.

A lot has changed in seven years.

O'Donnell, a four-time ACC Offensive Player of the Year at Maryland, has emerged as the face of a U.S. field hockey team that hopes to capture its first Olympic gold medal in London this summer. She has started at center forward since 2009, and helped the U.S. earn an automatic Olympic berth with a stunning win over Argentina, the No. 1 team in the world, at the Pan American Games last October.

"I'm definitely more of a leader than I ever was before," O'Donnell said earlier this month. "I know before practices some of the girls are coming over to me and asking me questions, and that's really nice to know that people trust you enough to ask your opinion."

And why wouldn't they? Although O'Donnell narrowly missed the cut for Beijing in 2008, she is among the most decorated field hockey players in U.S. history. The 23-year-old has already earned 112 international caps, won two national championships (2008 and 2010) and was named the National Sportswoman of the Year by the Women's Sports Foundation in 2010.

Of course, the 5-foot-2 O'Donnell recognizes that those accolades aren't simply a reflection of her own talent and work ethic. They speak to the efforts of the people behind the scenes, the teammates and coaches who've helped her development on and off the field.

"I think she's handled it so well because she's matured as a young woman," said Keli Smith Puzo, a former Terp who will likely start alongside O'Donnell on the forward line in London. "But you really have to give [Maryland coach] Missy [Meharg] a ton of credit in that because I think that she's helped Katie through all those transitional moments that were so key in her career."

That mentorship isn't quite complete. Shortly after competing in London, O'Donnell will return to College Park as a student assistant coach. She'll help Meharg and the rest of the Terps coaching staff with daily tasks while finishing up a degree in family sciences. She hopes the experience will strengthen her desire to pursue a coaching career.

"I think she'll be tremendous," said Meharg, who'll provide field hockey commentary during NBC's Olympic broadcasts this summer. "Her leadership, her ability to translate to young people what she can do with a field hockey stick and [her] tactics [are] really, really exceptional."

Right now, O'Donnell is just hoping to lead the U.S. to the Olympic podium — a lofty goal for a squad that has failed to qualify for three Summer Games the past 20 years (1992, 2000 and 2004). The Americans hosted Argentina for a four-exhibition series this week in Virginia before heading to Chula Vista, Calif., for some final Olympic preparations.

"To me, unity is such a big piece," O'Donnell said. "And right now, we're working towards having a lot of unity. I think that'll take us very far into the Olympic games, and we have a very good possibility of medalling."

It sounds like O'Donnell's days of not helping load the team bus are a distant memory.