BY BRAD BOTKIN I DEC. 2, 2013
|Ice hockey player Julie Chu poses for a portrait during the NBC
Olympics/United States Olympic Committee promotional shoot
on April 27, 2013 in West Hollywood, Calif.
At some point, to at least some degree, virtually every Olympian chose the path less traveled. That’s how they got where they are. But Julie Chu? She didn’t choose the path less traveled … she chose the path hardly traveled at all.
Growing up in Fairfield, Conn., Chu was big for her age, towering over her classmates in school pictures, almost 5-foot-8 by the sixth grade. She knew that when it came to ice sports, most girls gravitated to skating, but pirouettes weren’t her thing. She was a tough girl. She wanted to mix it up with the boys. When she was eight years old, she went to her bother Richard’s ice hockey game, and the rest, as they say, is history.
“I always say that hockey found me,” Chu says. “I remember going to the rink to watch one of (Richard’s) games, and seeing a poster on the wall that said, ‘Girls can play hockey, too.’ That was the moment when my world changed. I asked my parents if I could play, and I’m so grateful that they were all about opening doors and allowing me to pursue whatever I wanted. They suited me up in stinky, used hockey equipment, and I have loved it ever since.”
This February in Sochi, Russia, Chu and the rest of the U.S. women’s ice hockey team will be trying to bring the Olympic gold medal back to America for just the second time, and the first since the inaugural Olympic competition for women’s hockey at the 1998 Nagano Games. Final roster cuts, from 25 players down to 21, won’t be made until late December, and with the rise of women’s hockey creating an ever-deepening talent pool (something Chu has had no small part in facilitating), nobody is completely safe. But Chu, in her 14th year with the national team, is one of America’s most seasoned players and remains an all-around force on the ice.
Over the years, Chu has put together an unparalleled résumé. During her collegiate career at Harvard, where she initially deferred her acceptance to begin her national playing career at age 17, she was a four-time All-American and eventually became the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer. In 2007 she won the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award, the equivalent of college football’s Heisman Trophy, awarded to the nation’s top collegiate female hockey player, and she remains the NCAA’s all-time leader in both points and assists.
|Julie Chu shoots the puck during the IIHF Women's World
Championship semifinal game against Finland on April 8, 2013 in
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.
In 2012, Chu was inducted into the Connecticut Hockey Hall of Fame. The recognition, in part, was for what she’s done as a professional, playing in both the Western Women’s Hockey League and Canadian Women’s Hockey League, where she won two straight championships with the Minnesota White Caps and the Montreal Stars. And certainly her dominance at Harvard has been noted. But mostly, it’s been her accomplishments with the national team, for which she has tallied more than 120 career points, that have really set her apart. A five-time world champion, she’s been to three consecutive Olympic Winter Games, winning silver medals in 2002 and 2010 to sandwich a bronze medal at the 2006 Games in Torino, Italy.
You’ll notice, the one thing missing, the only thing missing, is an Olympic gold medal. She wants it, obviously, and with an Olympic field as competitive as ever, Chu’s battle-tested mettle, as the team continues to train in preparation for the Games, is an invaluable asset.
“My experience definitely helps in knowing what to expect and how to prepare for the Olympics,” Chu said. “Preparation is always a rollercoaster of emotions and physical challenges, and as veteran player(s), we are definitely forced into leadership roles. It’s a role I embrace, and I try my best each day to uphold our team’s standard and lead by example. I was so fortunate to join the team at 17 with the incredible veteran leaders that took me under their wing and guided me. I try hard to do the same for our younger players.
“Our team is great,” Chu continues. “We have been working hard on the ice, but what I appreciate is how much fun we have off the ice. Many of us live close to one another and we’ll grab meals together and just enjoy being in each other’s company. It’s a special dynamic that we will continue to grow, and that is a key for success. When we can trust one another in many different situations, then we will be able to adjust and adapt to everything that comes our way on the ice. It’s a special group and we know we need (everyone) to play their role for us to be successful.”
Canada, which has won two of the last three Olympic gold medals and is a perfect 3-0 against the U.S. team this fall, again figures to be the fiercest competition in Sochi. But Chu is quick to point out the threat of both Russia and Finland, both of which have won bronze medals at recent world championships, with Finland actually beating the U.S. 3-1 at the Four Nations Cup this past November.
“Canada is our biggest rival. We have tough, physical and competitive games every time we face on another,” Chu said. “But for us, we are focusing on being the best team we can be. We don’t worry about predictions or expectations. We are focused on our development and preparation as we move closer to Sochi.”
It’s easy to tell how much this all means to Chu, and how much appreciation for the process she has gained over the years. In 2005, at her parents’ 30-year wedding anniversary, her father came up with a fitting acronym for the family name, CHU: Commitment, Honor, Unity, and for Julie, this motto has come to represent everything she is playing for as her career begins to wind down. She’s playing for her team, for herself, and for her family, who put her into old, stinky hockey gear when she was eight years old and has supported her dreams every day since.
“I would not have been an Olympian without their support,” Chu said of her family. “I love to share this experience with them, because it truly is our experience. This time around, I am trying my best to enjoy every moment. I’m focusing on the journey to our end goal of winning a gold medal.”