Childhood dreams of the Olympics are about the competition and the medal podium, not the months and years ahead of time that make things possible.
It’s only when you grow up that you get smacked in the face by the reality of a preparation period and proving ground that takes up most of the year leading up to the Games.
For four former University of Wisconsin women’s hockey players that are a part of the Canadian Olympic team, the process is finally about to reach the payoff.
“You watch the Olympics, you think that the players just have fun all year around and just show up and compete,” goaltender Ann-Renée Desbiens said. “And now you realize that there’s a lot of time behind it — a lot of years and a lot of hours. So I feel it’s a long process but at the end it’s all worth it.”
Desbiens and forwards Emily Clark, Sarah Nurse and Blayre Turnbull are set to make their first Olympic appearances at next month’s Winter Games in South Korea. Canada opens the women’s hockey tournament in Gangneung on Feb. 11 against Russia.
Clark, 22, is the youngest player on the roster. Defenseman Meaghan Mikkelson, 33, who played for the Badgers from 2003 to 2007 and is making her third Olympic appearance, is the oldest.
Since August, they’ve been in Canada’s centralization camp, playing in games against midget-level boys teams as well as international competition. The venues have ranged from community rinks to NHL arenas.
“I would say it’s definitely not as glamorous as you might dream about when you were a kid,” Clark said after a December practice in a Minnesota rink on a trip to play against the U.S. “But it’s all worth it in the end. It’s fun to get to know the girls for a whole year. The process is difficult but you grow a lot. I’ve already seen a lot of growth in my game from August, so it’s exciting.”
The build-up to the Games was a grind, the players said, but Nurse offered that a benefit was a mental fortification that couldn’t be gained in college.
“This is a lot different from school — we have four games in a weekend traveling on a bus,” she said. “At Wisconsin, we didn’t do that. We had a nice day off after a road trip.”
Nurse and Desbiens, both 23, completed their UW careers in 2017, and 24-year-old Turnbull was the Badgers captain as a senior in 2014-15. Clark, meanwhile, has one more year to play in college and said she has gained a higher level of hockey knowledge from intensive study.
Desbiens first thought playing in the Olympics was a possibility when the Games were in Vancouver in 2010. The Quebec native got to tour the sites while playing in Canadian national championships in nearby Surrey, British Columbia, and the idea was hatched.
She set NCAA records for shutouts (55), save percentage (.955) and goals-against average (0.89) in a four-year Badgers career that she capped by winning the Patty Kazmaier Award last season as the top player in Division I women’s hockey.
Practicing against some of the best players in the world all season and spending extra time on hockey and not school work has brought her game up a notch this season, she said.
“Of course, at school we have an amazing program,” Desbiens said. “But once you get at this level, it’s even better. To get the chance to practice with them every day, to have a goalie coach with us all the time, a lot of goalie sessions, a lot of video, there’s not more resources but we have more time to spend on those little things.”
Nurse, who scored 76 goals in four seasons with the Badgers and was an All-American as a senior, said she doesn’t miss hitting the books, either. But the experience with the national team has reinforced how much playing for UW prepared her.
“Having the coaching staff and the players support you as you have to pop in and out for different tournaments with the national team, I think that was so helpful for us,” she said. “They put special emphasis on our development.”
Clark remembered back to watching her country win the gold medal in women’s hockey in 2014 — her academic adviser at Okanagan Hockey Academy in British Columbia let her and her teammates out of class to watch the final.
As a 13-year-old five years earlier, Clark made herself a promise that she wrote down, signed and put on her bedroom wall.
“I am going to play for team Canada!!!” the sign reads.
It has all come true.
“This is our dream, and we get to live it out,” Clark said. “I know exactly where I was watching the 2014 Olympics. So to think that, come February, I could have that impact on Canadians, makes this all worth it.”