PISCATAWAY – Two summers ago, Michelle Vittese and her U.S. field hockey teammates moved back East to Lancaster, Pa.
Before finishing 12th out of 12 teams in the 2012 London Olympics, the squad stayed at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., until their new home was ready.
It’s only a couple hours away from Cherry Hill, the former Camden Catholic standout’s hometown, still in range to keep tabs on the Philadelphia Eagles. Vittese has never been to a game, but she can’t help but be intrigued by head coach Chip Kelly and, more specifically, his “culture.”
Coming off a 2016 Olympic berth clinched last week at the Pan American Games in Toronto, and beating out Argentina for the gold medal, Vittese sees a payoff from the U.S. program trying to do exactly what Kelly is doing with his professional football team.
“It’s actually really interesting when I read what he talks about because it’s, no joke, to a T what we want to create,” said the 25-year-old Vittese, who was at Rutgers Monday with a couple teammates to help out with a clinic for middle school and high school players. “We want the players to have ownership and we hold each other accountable and the culture we’ve created has made us so successful. So full-time, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, that’s why I think we’re so successful. That’s what we’ve created as a group.”
The U.S. team claimed the ninth of 12 spots in the 2016 Rio Games. The move to a centralized program in Lancaster came with a new regimen to rid the team of the sour taste London left.
“We train six out of seven days a week, but it’s a 24-hour workday for me,” said Vittese, who had three goals in six games at the Pan Am Games. “I’m very mindful of what I eat, what I’m doing, how much sleep I’m getting. It’s an all-encompassing idea.”
The team has a short break now before gearing up again in August. They’ve come a long way from the disappointment of the 2012 Olympics, including a fourth-place finish in the 2014 World Cup and finishing fifth in the Valencia World League semifinal last month.
For Vittese, whose two sisters also play field hockey and whose father coaches at Camden Catholic, it’s been a long road. In fact, playing hockey on grass wasn’t always her forte.
She actually grew up playing roller hockey at the age of seven on co-ed teams and stopped before she went to college.
“I played in a lot of AAU tournaments,” Vittese said. “We played for a club team out of Deptford that kind of started it for me.”
She began playing field hockey in the fifth grade, which wasn’t a huge adjustment. That came when she went back to roller hockey, where she could use both sides of the stick blade instead of just the forehand in field hockey.
“I remember thinking, ‘Oh, this is kind of weird,’” she recalled, “but then pretty quickly I was like, ‘Oh.’ Going back to hockey was pretty different. That would have been the harder transition…from this, having to turn the stick over, to not having to turn it over.”
The roller hockey stopped when Vittese went to University of Virginia, where she redshirted her senior season to prepare for and play in the London Games. She was on the team that won gold in the 2011 Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, so finishing last in London was especially frustrating.
“Obviously finishing last place in the last Olympics is not what we wanted and it was a very trying time,” said Jackie Briggs, the team’s goalie who was an alternate in 2012. “It’s a huge learning curve for us. It was a great moment and we learned a lot from it. We re-defined everything that we were about and tried to create an environment where we were learning and growing and working as hard as we could. We all started training full-time as a full squad and I think the amount of work we put in and the learning that we did has helped us profoundly.”
Now Briggs, Vittese and the rest of the squad feel like they’re on track for a much better time in Rio.
Make no mistake though, getting the Olympic bid last week was no sigh of relief for the women’s national team.
“Never for one second did I not think that we were going to qualify one way or the other,” Vittese said. “I was very confident in our preparation and our staff to prepare us. I was very, very confident in our ability to do that. It’s not as much a sigh of relief as it’s just how I saw it playing out in my mind.
“The amount of work that we put into this, we were very well-deserving of what we were given.”
Dave Isaac; (856) 486-2479; email@example.com .