The trip to Philadelphia for Saturday’s Road to Rio 2016 Olympic promotional tour won’t be a long one for Team USA field hockey forward Paige Selenski.
It’s 120 miles from her hometown of Shavertown in northeastern Pennsylvania and only 75 miles from the team’s training center in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Those are considerably shorter distances than one of her first international trips with Team USA.
“I remember when I went to China. I ate General Tso’s chicken for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Selenski said with a laugh as she recalled a tour with the U-21 U.S. women’s national team when she was 16. “That’s all they had I could eat. That and those elephant ears pastry things, that’s all I ate.
“I’ve traveled across the whole world,” she continued. “That trip was one of the most memorable for me.”
Selenski, who has a passport that shows her going from a rural hamlet of 2,000 people to every continent except Africa and Antarctica, will be part of the Independence Day kickoff of Team USA’s Road to Rio extravaganza, a nine-city blitz presented by Liberty Mutual Insurance designed to expose fans to the spirit of the Olympic and Paralympic Games and introduce them to locally connected athletes who hope to make the trip to Brazil next year.
Besides her personal accomplishment of literally seeing the world, the 25-year-old Selenski’s arrival on the U.S. women’s national team in 2009 has helped it achieve some of its best results in its history. It won a first-ever Pan American Games gold medal in 2011, the Hockey Champions Challenge crown last year and finished fourth at last year’s World Cup. She and the team also competed at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Selenski has been widely praised for her speed within the hockey community, but when she goes to promotional events or meets her fellow Americans on the street, the reaction ranges from impressed to stunned — unaware that field hockey is a sport.
“Some do, some don’t,” she said. “I get mixed vibes. Some people are really familiar. Others don’t know what field hockey is, that it exists, that we have a women’s national team. But that’s why we try to get out, grow the sport, the (popularity) of the team.”
Even if many are unaware of the existence of the U.S. women’s national field hockey team, Selenski is a bit of a celebrity in her hometown.
“Back in the buildup to London, the community back home was ecstatic that I was going to the Olympic Games,” she said. “It’s not the norm. It’s definitely a big deal, and they tend to blow up things.”
Selenski is likely to find a more knowledgeable crowd in Philadelphia, with the popularity of field hockey centered in and the majority of the team coming from the northeastern United States.
Still, her part in the Road to Rio event on Saturday is designed to entertain, as well as educate, Olympic fans with photo opportunities, virtual reality exhibits and meet and greets, said David Giglio, the United States Olympic Committee’s associate director, marketing activation.
“It’s to bring excitement and awareness to the fans here, give exposure to our fans with the athletes,” said Giglio, who also oversaw the previous two “Road to…” events in connection with London and Sochi. “It’s designed to allow fans to touch and feel what the Olympics are like, in their own backyard.”
Besides Selenski, other 2012 Olympic veterans joining her Saturday will be wrestler Jordan Burroughs, the 74-kilogram freestyle gold medalist, and Esther Lofgren, a member of the championship winning women’s eight rowing crew.
Headlining the event will be nine-time Olympic track and field champion Carl Lewis, who resided in New Jersey before returning to Houston. The event is free and open to the public starting at 11 a.m. at Ben Franklin Parkway, between N. 21st and N. 20th Streets.
The exhibit will not only afford the opportunity for fans to get their pictures taken with the athletes but also allow them to appear — with green-screen backdrops — as though they are running with the Olympic torch on Rio de Janeiro’s famed Copacabana Beach, participating in the long jump pit at the Olympic stadium, hanging on the men’s gymnastics rings or standing on the 10-meter diving platform.
Two custom-built tractor-trailers also will have virtual reality exhibits that allow a person to experience gymnastics, diving, beach volleyball or pole vaulting.
For Selenski, demonstrating a penalty stroke or penalty corner will be lower tech: ball and stick.
Still, for someone who has gone from small town to the capitals of the world, spending her Independence Day in Philadelphia as the focus of an Olympic event is a way to enjoy another adventure.
“There is a special kind of joy, being an Olympian,” she said. “It can really inspire you to do something.”
Brian Trusdell has covered four FIFA World Cups and six Olympic Games during his more than 30 years as a sportswriter, mostly with the Associated Press and Bloomberg News. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.