The U.S. women’s field hockey team in a loss to Germany at the London Olympics. The team had medal hopes but finished last.
By STEVE REDDICLIFFE
Published: February 19, 2013

The months leading to last summer’s London Olympics had been exceptionally promising ones for the United States women’s field hockey team. In fact, it did not seem unreasonable that the team would contend for a medal, which would have been only its second.

But after that promise ended in a last-place finish at the Games, USA Field Hockey returned home to figure out what went wrong, a six-month process that culminated in structural changes, the departure of the coach and the technical director, and the hiring of a new coach, Craig Parnham, in January.

“You’re pretty much accountable to what your results are,” said Steve Locke, the executive director of USA Field Hockey.

It was not the process the team expected to be going through, after seeing positive signs in its pre-Olympic competitions.

The United States won its first Pan American Cup in October 2011 with a 4-2 victory over Argentina, long regarded as one of the strongest programs in the world. A four-scrimmage series against Argentina in June in Virginia also went well, and things were looking up for an American program that finished eighth in Beijing in 2008 and had not won an Olympic medal since a bronze in 1984.

But in its first game in London, the United States lost, 2-1, to Germany, although it played impressively in the second half. In the next game, the team again defeated Argentina, which went on to win the silver medal. But the United States then lost one-goal games to Australia and New Zealand and was eliminated from medal contention for the semifinals.

Facing a winless South African team that had lost to Argentina, 7-1, the United States was overwhelmed, 7-0, and, after a loss to Belgium, the team finished last among the 12 teams in the competition.

The program’s image took another hit when The Chicago Tribune reported in September that the coach of the under-21 women’s team had used offensive language in an e-mail to players. The coach, Nick Conway, who had been an assistant for the United States team in London, was fired that month.

“I definitely think there was a lot of disappointment with our performance at the Olympic Games,” said midfielder Rachel Dawson, who was also on the team in 2008. “Had we scored a few more goals in the close games maybe things would have been way different. But I think there’s a lot of opportunities that we missed and I think not just at the Games but in our preparation.

“I think it was disappointing to finish last, but I also think in the long run it will make our program a lot better,” she said before pausing for a beat. “I have had to embrace that,” she added with a laugh.

Since the Olympics, changes have been swift and sweeping. USA Field Hockey did not renew the contracts of Lee Bodimeade, the women’s national coach since 2005, and Terry Walsh, the technical director for high performance.

“Both guys, although they’re both very good and competent people, they really weren’t producing the results that they had mutually agreed upon with us,” Locke said.

The performance at the Olympics, Locke said, “was kind of a fait accompli.” He added, “I think we had been struggling with some of the ambience of the team.”

After the Games, USA Field Hockey hired Peter G. Davis, a sports physiologist who had analyzed programs in other countries, including Britain and Canada, to evaluate the team.

“We went through a pretty exacting third-party examination of the program,” Locke said.

One result of USA Field Hockey’s post-London analysis was a structural change, with the coach now reporting directly to Locke. “The new performance director coming in would be more of an adjunct to the coaches” rather than having a role of overseeing the coaches, he said.

The program also announced plans to move its training site to a new facility in Lancaster, Pa., from Chula Vista, Calif. The new site, which is closer to the home bases of many players on the national teams, is expected to be in operation next year.

And in January, USA Field Hockey hired Parnham, 39, who was an assistant for the British women’s team that won a bronze medal in London, as the new United States coach.

“Craig is one of the brightest people I’ve run into,” Locke said of Parnham. “He’s not only a quality athlete — he was a two-time Olympian — also he is a great studier of the sport. One of his assignments as assistant coach in G.B. was to scout all the teams, and he has as thorough a knowledge as anyone I know of the composition of teams throughout the world.

“He’s low-key, he’s analytical, he is a consensus builder and a builder of a team, and this is precisely what we felt we needed.”

Parnham said his years as a player and coach at the Olympic level would be helpful in his new post.

“I’m just trying to bring some of that experience, of the last 10 or 15 years of coaching and playing, and bring that to the U.S. and see if I can make some progress at the world rankings,” he said.

Parnham said that as a player he was “quite unique in that I played since the age of 14, all junior hockey, and didn’t get to play advanced hockey until I was in my mid-20s.”

One lesson of his athletic career, he said, was that there “is an absolute need to keep an eye on players that develop later.”

Parnham was a captain when he made his debut for England — “which I don’t think had ever been done before,” he said — and was 27 when he played his first Olympic game, in 2000. In 2001 his playing career appeared to be in jeopardy after he was hit in the throat by an opponent’s stick during a tournament in Malaysia.

After a tracheotomy and reconstructive surgery, the recovery was quick but difficult, he said, because he could not speak for weeks.

“From the time I was struck on Aug. 6, I was back playing the week before Christmas,” he said. In February 2002, he returned to the stadium in Kuala Lumpur to play in a World Cup game.

As a coach, he said, he favors a player-led approach. “It’s paramount that they are involved in the process and how we drive the program forward,” he said. “It’s their program, and as the coach I am there to manage it and set the expectations.”

He has started working with the players, helping prepare the team for World Cup qualifying games that will be played next month in Rio de Janeiro.

Midfielder Katelyn Falgowski said: “Change is a good thing sometimes, and I could not be more thrilled with the experience that Craig brings to our group. I think we’re all ready to get back to playing, ready to try some new things and see where that leads us.

“I think with a new foundation, some new ideas implemented, that will hopefully get us where we need to be.”

Photo credit: Chang W. Lee/The New York Times