Gangneung, South Korea • Imagine having to re-live what was supposed to be the best day ever. Then, after you’ve managed to get over it, that pain smacks into you again. The truth is, there is no getting over the best day ever becoming the hardest.
Your mind will protect you and eventually you’ll move on from it, but triggers are there, entrenched. It’s a forever thing. Those thoughts, every day for months on end, year after year, got the team in blue to the finish line. They got them the happy tears instead of the sad ones. They got them the jubilation instead of the devastation. They got them flinging their gloves and helmets and sticks in the air.
They got Team USA gold instead of silver.
These 2018 Olympic Winter Games have been begging for a defining moment, a replay or two that will live on for eternity, a name or two that kids will remember as trivia answers in a few decades but won’t exactly be sure why. Because the Olympics do that. It’s only the Olympics that can devise such powerful impressions.
The lasting 2018 impression was etched into lore here Thursday afternoon. Round III of what some consider the best rivalry in international sport: U.S. vs. Canada on the ice. The only tears the U.S. women’s hockey team have shed the last decade — before Thursday’s epic — were a special kind, the kind only the despondency of second place can produce.
The Americans had done it twice, falling to their rivals to the north in back-to-back gold-medal games in Vancouver in 2010 and again in Sochi in 2014. Overcoming that requires a resiliency of a specific nature. But you play on. You keep skating.
They believed sooner or later their gold-medal game would come. And they’d be dead-center instead of being perched off to the side of the Olympic champions waiting for silver, heads not buried in their jerseys, hands not on their heads in disbelief that they again somehow had come up just short.
It finally came.
On the grit of a team that saw an early lead vanish. On the tenacity of a power play needing to be quashed with less than two minutes remaining in a golden-goal overtime. It arrived through the magic of a skater from Grand Forks, N.D., with enough nerve to go viral. It arrived through the lens of a 20-year-old goalie, a pre-business major at the University of Minnesota Duluth who anticipated the last penalty shot and kept the puck out of the net.
The final tally after more than three hours was U.S. 3, Canada 2.
“Holy cow,” said Olympic veteran Gigi Marvin, “Maddie Rooney.”
Holy cow, that game.
Twenty years after winning the inaugural women’s Olympic hockey tournament, gold was back around the necks of the red, white and blue. Forward Hilary Knight was an 8-year-old jumping up and down on her couch back home in Sun Valley, Idaho, celebrating Team USA’s 3-1 win over Canada in Nagano, Japan.
Now this group will have a reach that goes beyond the first-ever Olympic champions of the 1998 Games.
“It’s definitely part of our legacy,” Knight said.
“It’s been 20 years since we’ve brought it back,” Brianna Decker said.
They had to be handed silver to appreciate the taste of gold.
“I know that feeling,” forward Amanda Kessel said. “There’s no better feeling than this.”
Thanks to a move Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson has worked on thousands of times after the loss in Sochi. Around tires, she said, making her hands quicker. She’d mishandled pucks thousands of times in the attempts as well, finding a way to make it perfect. You don’t get to that moment and just pull a rabbit out of a hat, take a bow and skate to the bench.
U.S. coach Robb Stauber told Lamoureux-Davidson after Kessel made her penalty attempt that she’d be the sixth shooter. He asked if she wanted it: “I said absolutely.” After going through five rounds, any player can take the shot. Knight just had missed, stuffed by Canada goalie Shannon Szabados. A miss would have given Canada its shot at gold that never came.
That’s when Lamoureux-Davidson became a legend seven-and-a-half seconds after she touched the puck, bringing Szabados first to her knees then onto her back with the most cheeky of moves: A triple-deke that made one of the world’s best shot-stoppers immediately dumfounded.
Her twin sister, Monique, said the move is called “Oops, I Did it Again.”
“That’s why Joc is a gold medalist,” Marvin said.
“I think she does it every day,” added Kessel. “She’s always dangling people, so [we have] a lot of confidence in her.”
“I feel like I kind of blacked out,” Lamoureux-Davidson said.
She might’ve, but the world did not. Lamoureux-Davidson immediately became one with the Internet, a gold-medal-making sensation whose life never will be the same after that move. None of theirs will be the same. Even after winning the first gold in 20 years, one of Knight’s first comments was how the day suddenly was bittersweet since this group never will be together in the same capacity on this stage on the ice again.
And believe it or not, the gold is just an added bonus.
This team already changed the course of history in its sport, going public with demands of equal pay and benefits, even threatening to sit out last year’s world championships. A boycott was avoided less than a week before the tournament began when a new four-year contract paved the way for a different future. One they deserved.
“For all the little girls watching,” a beaming Kessel said.
The end of the line never was fueled by revenge. Sure, the rivals aren’t fond of one another. That’s why this game has become the must-watch one every four years. It wasn’t about beating Canada, making them feel the way they’ve felt.
After Thursday’s game, Canada’s Natalie Spooner made the same speech the Americans have the last two Games, saying how no one ever will dare forget how much that outcome sucked and how it will fuel them for four long years.
“I don’t think something like that ever goes away,” Lamoureux-Davidson said. “I would love to have two gold medals, but it’s made us what we are today.”
“We did it,” Marvin said. “Crushed the fear, crushed the doubt.”
How many times could the Americans have caved and once more taken shape as the team that got dangerously close before collapsing? They instead shook free from the past because even the most inconsolable moments eventually end, and new ones, brilliant ones, are born.
While wrapped in an American flag she’s hauled around with her for the last seven months, Lamoureux-Davidson waited her turn to face the question she’ll face the rest of her life. Behind her teammates, she watched the highlights on a flat-screen TV in the distance, waiting to see the triple-deke she honestly couldn’t remember enough to describe in detail.