The Olympians next door
Standouts on the ice, the country’s best female hockey players are blending into the local families that volunteered to host them as they train for the Winter Games in Sochi.
NOTHING ABOUT KENDALL COYNE shouts soon-to-be Olympian. That is not her style, at least not as she horses around before a youth soccer game in Acton. She’s here to cheer on 6-year-old Callen Beveridge and his teammates. Despite the early Saturday morning start, Coyne welcomes this break in training with the US women’s national hockey team. In a life focused on winning gold, time with her local host family, the Beveridges, offers some normalcy. As Callen waits to take to the indoor artificial turf, Coyne tosses him in the air over and over. “That’s my workout for the day,” she jokes. Then Coyne pulls out a pink elastic and helps 8-year-old Gusty Beveridge with a ponytail. The blond-haired trio — Coyne, Callen, and Gusty — could easily be mistaken for siblings.
But Coyne, 21, first met the Beveridges in August. At the time, she wanted a host family close to the national team’s training base at The Edge Sports Center in Bedford, yet also removed from the competitive atmosphere at the rink. With nearly six months full of long practices and long road trips scheduled before February’s Sochi Olympics in Russia, the fast, elusive forward sensed she would need an escape from the pressure. Jen and John Beveridge offered Coyne accommodations in their one-bedroom, one-bathroom carriage house in Concord. At home with the Beveridges, Coyne plays street hockey with the kids, seeks advice on mental preparation for the Games from Jen, who competed professionally in tennis, talks about Russian culture with John, who worked in Moscow for two years, and joins everyone for family dinners.
“The first time I walked into the house, I saw Callen and Gusty playing sports, and they reminded me of when I was a kid with my brothers and sister,” says Coyne, who grew up in Palos Heights, Illinois, and will resume her college career at Northeastern University in the fall. “We were always playing sports and always wanting to have fun. If I didn’t want to be with a host family, I would have lived in an apartment. . . . This is probably the best decision I’ve made thus far.”
Preparing for the Winter Games, the country’s best female hockey players currently call suburban Boston home. They talk about visits to Cape Cod and Patriots contests, about time spent touring historic Concord, apple picking, pumpkin carving, churchgoing, and golfing. They know the back-road shortcuts from Bedford to Woburn, where they work out with Red Sox strength and conditioning consultant Mike Boyle. They bond over burrito nights organized by one of the host families.
They are the Olympians next door.
The players often go unrecognized, lacking the exposure of Olympic skiers, snowboarders, figure skaters, and their National Hockey League counterparts. But that may change once the Sochi Games start. The US women’s team and its rivalry with Canada could become one of the event’s big stories, especially if the United States wins gold for the first time since the 1998 Nagano Games in Japan. The players and coaches believe training time invested in Greater Boston will lead to the medal podium. Downtime is important, too.
“When you see your teammates day in and day out, 24 hours a day if you live with them, it can get a little overwhelming at times,” says defenseman Megan Bozek. “But living with a family, it makes me look forward to going to the rink, going to workouts every day, hanging out with my teammates for the day, then having a different lifestyle when I go home.”
Bozek, 22, from Buffalo Grove, Illinois, spends evenings with the hockey-playing Braceras family, including four kids ages 8 to 15. The group bonded quickly, and family photos from a late-summer trip to Falmouth feature Bozek front and center. At their home in Concord, she occupies the basement with its bedroom, bathroom, big-screen TV, and game area. It “all worked out perfectly,” she says.
Nearly half of the 25 Olympic hopefuls chose to live with host families, primarily in Concord, while the rest moved into area apartments with teammates. When asked about the host-family arrangements, head coach Katey Stone says, “I wish everybody had done it.” She believes that the families provide players with a more balanced life, that activities like youth soccer games and trips to Cape Cod give players a broader perspective, especially as they faced final cuts in December. “They’re trying to make the team,” says Stone. “They’re trying to be the best team in the world. There’s a lot at stake for them, so what they do with their downtime is as valuable as what we do on the ice.”
BOZEK AND FELLOW DEFENSEMAN Anne Schleper poke and prod a salsa chicken casserole fresh from the oven, then taste. They wonder whether it is done. “I’m more of a baker,” says Schleper, who’s 23 and from hockey hotbed St. Cloud, Minnesota. She found the recipe on Pinterest and decided to make it for a family dinner at the Braceras house. What follows is comically endearing, with Bozek and Schleper out of their element, puzzling over crunchy rice. They study the dish with a mix of Olympian intensity and Midwestern-bred earnestness. Finally, Schleper announces: “We’re going to let it cook a little longer. Sorry, guys.” No one gathered around the kitchen island seems to mind. The crowd of kids and adults, a blend of Bozek’s and Schleper’s related host families, keeps chatting.
Moments like these remind Bozek and Schleper why they sought host families. The matchmaking process started over the summer, after the country’s best learned what their immediate hockey future held.
During a seven-day, 41-player tryout in Lake Placid, New York, in June, Stone and her staff helped select the national team. The 25 chosen skaters would move to the Boston area, participate in USA Hockey’s “in residence” training camp, and, after more cuts, become the 21-member Olympic team. The “in residence” program, where players train and compete together for several months, takes place only in Olympic years. And every quadrennial camp presents daunting logistics.
With less than two months to relocate, players interrupt college careers or leave jobs. Some drive cross-country. All search for convenient, cost-effective places to live until they take up residence in the Olympic Village.
To help some players find homes, the staff at the Edge training center and members of the local youth hockey community searched for families that wanted to host a national team member.
The Bracerases were interested. Jennifer Braceras talked it through with her husband and children, including her 8-year-old son, Marcos. With three older sisters, Jennifer worried Marcos would feel even more outnumbered. “I asked him, ‘You’re not going to mind having another girl in the house for six months?’ ” says Jennifer. “He just started laughing and said: ‘This isn’t a girl. This is an Olympian.’ ”
Meanwhile, back home in Illinois, Bozek, one of the best defensemen ever to compete for the University of Minnesota, compiled a billet-family wish list. The Bracerases met all the criteria. Bozek, who grew up with two athletic older brothers, easily acclimated to her always-on-the-go host family. “I’ve done an elementary school, middle school, and high school pickup,” she says of her turns ferrying kids. Bozek likes the organized chaos of four kids, the energy, the different personalities, the laughter during dinner at the end of a long day. After the chicken salsa casserole draws good reviews, she is home alone with the two youngest Braceras children, Marcos and 11-year-old Gabriela. She shifts to equal parts mother and big sister. “Do you have homework?” she asks Gabriela, who has wandered into the kitchen. “Take off your Uggs. You’re gonna stay awhile.” Boots off, Gabriela disappears to do her homework.
Schleper preferred a quieter household than her former Minnesota teammate Bozek. Reading through billet-family profiles provided by the national team manager, write-ups that fell somewhere between dating website bios and real estate advertisements, she liked what she saw in the Stone family (no relation to her coach): Quiet, relaxing residence in Concord. Easy 10- to 15-minute commute to practice rink. Family of six with mother, father, and tennis-playing teenage daughter living at home. Accommodations include bedroom on the third floor with shared bathroom.
During a hastily arranged first meeting, Schleper clicked with the Stones. “I met her for about 20 minutes, then gave her the keys to the house because we were leaving for vacation,” says Elise Stone, who learned of the host-family opportunity from her sister-in-law Jennifer Braceras. “Anne’s outgoing and open, and I just knew it would work.” When Schleper and Elise’s 16-year-old daughter, Isabella, come home each night, dinner is waiting. Meals adhere to Schleper’s no-dairy training diet, including recipes suggested by the national team’s nutritionist. Schleper and Isabella have bonded, baking whole-wheat banana bread, going to a Hunter Hayes concert at The Big E, watching movies, and sometimes talking late into the night.
“When coach said, ‘I want you all to split up, going with billet families,’ we were all like, ‘Are you serious? We’re 23 years old, we’re 27 years old,’ ” recalls Schleper. “In a way, it seemed childish, and we wanted to be on our own. But I think . . . it’s exactly what I thought it was going to be from the description. I have this awesome family away from hockey that is my support system out here. And I have awesome support from my actual family at home.”
WHILE PLAYERS RECEIVE financial support— a modest living and training stipend—from USA hockey for their six-month stay in suburban Boston, the economics usually don’t favor them. Considering all the time national team members invest in their Olympic dreams, especially in non-Olympic years, “if you break it all down, I don’t know if we even make minimum wage,” 24-year-old forward Hilary Knight says. Mike Boyle, whose strength and conditioning clients include dozens of professional athletes, particularly NHL players, calls the women’s national team members “the last of the real amateurs in team sports.” They play for the love of the game with no expectation of a career in hockey or sponsorships.
Knowing the financial burdens and other challenges that come with Winter Games training, many of the team’s older veterans opted for host families, including 31-year-old Julie Chu, who grew up in Fairfield, Connecticut, already a three-time Olympian. After all, affordable, convenient rental housing in Greater Boston is difficult for almost anyone to find, never mind a full-time athlete here for the short term and unfamiliar with the area.
In addition to room and board, host families free players from worry about paying bills on time, grocery shopping, and what to do about leases after they return from Sochi and probably relocate again. Knight, a member of the 2010 Olympic team, had rented an apartment alone in downtown Minneapolis the last time the team trained together for the Winter Games. “Before the Vancouver Games, I was thinking: ‘OK, I have to be out in six months. Do I pack up all my stuff before Vancouver? Do I come back afterward?’ These little things weigh on you and pile up.” This time around, she opted for a Barbie-pink bedroom at the Miller home in Concord with a twin bed a few inches too short for her 5-foot-11 frame.
“I was nervous about staying with a family because I did the whole boarding-school thing,” says Knight, who knew the Millers from her hometown of Sun Valley, Idaho. “I’ve been out of the house environment since 13 years of age. I’m a really independent person. I like my alone time to regenerate. . . . With the Millers, there’s always stuff going on. I can choose to participate in it, or I can take a back seat and do my own thing.”
The players cannot repay their billet families for their generosity, though they buy gifts and groceries on occasion and offer help when possible. “We’re anything they need us to be,” jokes Bozek. The families are in it for the friendships made and the opportunity to participate in the Olympic process. “We thought it would be an exciting way to support TeamUSA and see firsthand how athletes at the highest level train,” says Jennifer Braceras, whose 13-year-old daughter, Rosie, received encouragement from Bozek to play more aggressively. “I think all of us found an amazing role model and lifelong friend.”
IN MID-DECEMBER, with final cuts fast approaching, the players think nothing of slick, snow-covered roads as they commute to the Mike Boyle Strength and Conditioning gym tucked into a Woburn industrial park. Most Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday mornings start at the 22,000-square-foot workout facility. A banner above the weight lifting area features the USA Hockey logo and proclaims “Home of the United States Women’s National Team.” With routine efficiency, players stretch, squat, raise kettle bells, and bench-press between 140 and 150 pounds. One of the most impressive displays comes when Coyne hangs 35 pounds from her waist then starts a series of pullups.
“They’ve humbled professional athletes in just about every sport,” says Boyle. “We had an NFL player in here the other day, and he was doing split squats, looked at the girls, and said, ‘I need to get heavier dumbbells.’ Everybody that comes in here looks at them and thinks, ‘Wow.’ You don’t see this every day.”
Coyne calls days with weight lifting followed by film sessions, where players review video of recent games, followed by two-hour on-ice practices at the Edge simply “busy days.”
“You don’t get to this point without being disciplined, hard-working, totally focused on one thing,” says host-family dad John Beveridge. “Kendall wakes up, eats well, works out, goes to practice, comes home, eats well, goes to sleep early, and does it all over again the next day.”
Given the players’ packed schedule, including travel around the country and Canada for pre-Olympic tournament and exhibition games, host-family time typically revolves around meals. At the end of exhausting Mondays, the Millers welcome players for burrito nights at their Concord home. What started with a few teammates quickly grew into a regular event. “Hilary started talking about burrito night in the locker room,” says mom Kris Miller. “Then everyone started saying to Hilary, ‘When can we get invited to burrito night?’ That’s when it took off.” Now the crowd sometimes numbers nearly a dozen players.
In sweats and flannel, the players, who hours earlier had no problem hoisting heavy barbells, ask Kris Miller to fold their overstuffed burritos, lining up at the kitchen counter for help. Then they pile onto a large L-shaped couch, watch TV, and chat for the next two hours. Knight keeps a fire roaring and bakes a batch of chocolate chip cookies, while her teammates flip channels between The Voice, Monday Night Football, and movies. Hockey never comes up.
The group often includes the Miller’s youngest daughter, Kinley, who has Olympic hockey dreams of her own. “I think about what I can learn from them,” says the 13-year-old. “Not everybody gets to have Olympians at their house.” And host-family kids like Kinley remind the Olympians of where it all began. The leave-taking next month will be tough. “It’s never going to be a ‘Goodbye,’ ” says Knight. “It’s just going to be ‘See you later.’ ” The journey will continue more than 5,000 miles away in Sochi, but the players will bring a bit of Bedford, Concord, and Woburn with them.
■ Bozek, Chu, Coyne, Knight, and Schleper were all officially named to the Olympic team in January.
Shira Springer is a Globe sportswriter who covers the Olympics. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.