CHULA VISTA, Calif. -- The boys and girls gathered in front of Rachel Dawson Tuesday night didn’t really know who she was or what sport she played.
They hadn’t seen her play a game on TV and they certainly never had seen the funny-looking stick she was holding.
Yet, it didn’t matter. Though they squiggled and squirmed in their seats as she spoke, the 50-some youngsters and their parents at the South Bay YMCA Family Kari Lyn Sutherland Gymnastics Center and Sports Complex kept their eyes on Dawson, who captured their attention with her enthusiasm and energy.
Dawson, 26, the captain of the U.S. women’s field hockey team that will be playing at the London 2012 Olympic Games this summer, was speaking to the kids in her first outing as an ambassador for the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Team for Tomorrow Program.
The midfielder talked to them about her family, her life in sports, how field hockey has been her passion since the age of 12, the Olympic Games, what it takes to be great and the three things she believes are necessary to unlock the greatness inside each person.
Later, she signed autographs, posed for pictures with the kids and gave a field hockey skills demonstration on an indoor basketball court.
All the time, she spoke directly to the kids, singling them out by name and offering encouragement.
“Do you all want to be great?” she asked the children, who of course all answered “yes.” “Do you all believe you have greatness already inside you? Do you believe me that you have greatness already inside you?”
Dawson, who trains with her team at the nearby Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, is a former University of North Carolina standout from New Jersey. In 2007, she won the Honda Cup as the nation’s top collegiate player. In 2008, she was on the U.S. Olympic Team that finished eighth in Beijing.
She told the children that to unlock their greatness — in whatever they choose to pursue — she believes they need to do three things:
• Fuel their bodies with proper nutrition and rest so they “can attack the day” and do their best.
• “Explore your mind.” Imagine possibilities and follow them. “See where it can take you,” she said.
• “Celebrate yourself.” Choose what you wish to do and what makes you happy, then “share your greatness with others and celebrate it.”
Dawson used herself as an example, telling the kids she grew up in house filled with eight children, and how she fell in love with field hockey because of an older sister who went out for field hockey when she couldn’t do what she really wanted—to be a cheerleader. But once her sister found field hockey, she excelled at it, and five younger sisters followed her into the sport.
Dawson explained to the kids at the YMCA that field hockey “changed her life” and gave her something in which she could pursue greatness. In turn, it gave her opportunities she couldn’t have ever imagined.
As an ambassador for the Team for Tomorrow Program, Dawson is hoping she can deliver a message that will help open doors for youngsters, just as doors were opened for her.
She knew the kids didn’t know anything about her sport. In fact, even after speaking for several minutes about her experiences, one little boy asked, “What’s field hockey?” But to Dawson, that didn’t matter.
“I don’t think it’s so much about field hockey as it is just about the Olympic movement, what the Olympics means,” she said after the hour-long session. “There’s a deeper meaning to sports. It’s not just about winning or losing, but it’s about, you know, testing yourself and seeing how good you can be and learning about yourself.”
This was Dawson’s first public outing as an ambassador for the program, which has been in existence since 2008. Twelve U.S. athletes, including Dawson, are participating in the Team for Tomorrow program.
“This is my first opportunity,” she said. “I’m really open to doing this as much as possible. I think it’s great for sport in general, and also for the sport of field hockey.”
After speaking to the kids and signing autographs, Dawson passed out field hockey sticks and demonstrated how they’re used. On a basketball court, she let them use the sticks and set them up in drills to move the ball across the court.
Finally, she set up a goal and stood in as a goaltender to let the kids take shots. As each scored on her — usually with the last of their three tries — the kids raised their arms in triumph and high-fived their friends.
With the Opening Ceremony for the London Games less than two months away, Dawson and her teammates will be focusing more on training and fine-tuning as they hope to win a medal for the first time in 28 years.
The American women have had a tough time in recent Olympic Games, finishing last in 2008 after failing to qualify for the Games in 2004, 2000 and 1992. In 1984, Team USA earned a bronze medal in Los Angeles.
However, the United States beat the world’s No. 1 team, Argentina, to win the Pan American Games in November in Mexico and earn an automatic invitation to these Olympic Games.
Dawson, the American team captain, says her only real expectation in London is that she will work her tail off.
“We have our work cut out for us,” she said. “We’re ranked 10th in the world. To qualify for the Olympics we beat the No. 1 team in the world, so there’s definitely the potential there to do great things, but it’s going to be about delivering the performance on any given day.”