Team USA’s Julie Chu is vying to make history by medalling at her fourth Olympic Winter Games
ne day when Julie Chu was 8 years old, she had an epiphany while watching her older brother play hockey. Before her eyes appeared a poster that read, “Girls can play hockey, too.” Today, 23 years later, Chu has three Olympic and nine world medals to her name and is considered to be one of the top forwards in the sport. She has earned a final spot on Team USA even though she is three years older than anyone else on the current roster. At the 2014 Olympic Winter Games, Chu seeks to make history by winning a medal in her fourth Olympic appearance, a feat accomplished by only one other U.S. women’s hockey player.
Chu shows off her three Olympic medals, which she won at the past three Winter Games
RL Magazine caught up with Chu after a recent practice to discuss how playing with the boys shaped her game, how much she wants a rematch with the Canadian squad and what it means to her to be a team player as she prepares for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
RL Magazine: Hockey wasn’t exactly known as a sport for girls back in the early 1990s. It’s only starting to gain momentum. How did your young male teammates react when you first started playing?Julie Chu: I was really fortunate that I grew up in Fairfield, Connecticut, and that I played at Wonderland of Ice in Bridgeport, a town over. From my parents to the coaches and my teammates, they just treated me like another hockey player. Occasionally, other teams teased me a little bit. But I think it helped that I grew really fast. I was probably 5'8" by the time I was in sixth grade. So I always had an advantage of being a head taller than everyone else.
An intimidator—we like it. How did playing alongside the boys shape your game?It made me prove myself every day and [taught me] to be resilient in whatever came my way.
How would you describe your playing style now? Do you most resemble: (a) Bob Probert, the enforcer; (b) Wayne Gretsky, the scorer; or (c) Ryan Suter, the shot blocker?I’d like to think I’m more like [New York Rangers forward] Ryan Callahan, although he can put the puck away a bit more than I can. But I definitely like the defensive side of the game.
Women’s hockey has grown in popularity by leaps and bounds since you first entered international competition in 2002. To what do you attribute that?It’s a testament to the 1998 U.S. women’s hockey team, as well as to the inclusion of women’s hockey [for the first time] in the Olympic Winter Games that year. If you chart girls’ hockey in North America after 1998, it’s had huge growth. [U.S. hockey is] now nearing the 70,000 mark in terms of the number of girls playing.
You played in your first Olympic Winter Games at 19, putting college—Harvard, nonetheless—on hold to do so, right?After graduating from high school, I was planning on going to Harvard [in the fall] unless I was able to make it through the first round of cuts [for the 2002 Olympic team]. As much as my parents have always emphasized how important it is to get an education—my brother and I couldn’t go to practice or play with our friends until we had our homework done—they understood how important this was to me and that I was still going to end up going back to school. So I just deferred for a year. And I had an unbelievable Olympic experience and a great experience at Harvard.
Of all of Team USA’s opponents, Chu says she believes that the Finnish, Russian and Swiss teams will be especially strong competition, though Canada remains Team USA’s biggest rival
Now you are the grande dame of the women’s national team.Yes, I am! [Laughs.]
If you had a choice, would you rather be a rookie or a seasoned pro? I like where I am right now on the team. I like that I’ve had all these great opportunities to see and experience so many things and play with so many amazing players. I wouldn’t trade any of that to start all over again. But one thing that’s amazing about being a rookie is that first-time experience is extra special.
You’re known throughout the media as the ultimate team player. What does that title mean to you?For me, it means the world. What I love about hockey, besides that it’s an incredibly dynamic game, is that it’s a team sport. I get a chance to be with teammates that can rely on me, and I can rely on them. And we get an opportunity to go through this training together, trying to put all the pieces together and making sure that we’re all moving together as one group.
You recently said, “Not being at your best is cheating your teammates, your country and your program.” That’s an incredible standard to live up to, no? How do you do it?[My teammates and I] talk about accountability a lot. We put value on the roles that each of us plays on the team. Some are going to be in the first and second lines. They’re going to see a lot of ice time. But at the same time, there are players that are in other situations and other roles; they are just as important to the team’s success. And so for me, when I step into the training room or the gym, I know my role and what I have to do for the next hour/hour and a half to become a little bit better at it for [the sake of] this team.
What teams will give the U.S. the most headaches in Sochi—besides Canada?I would say Finland has a great shot. They have a great goalie, Noora Raty. I think she already graduated from the University of Minnesota and has, like, the all-time NCAA shutout record or something ridiculous. Russia has invested a lot of resources in their Olympic squad over the last three-and-a-half years, and they’ve got an NHL ex-player helping out with their program. So I think that they’re going to put up a good fight. Also Switzerland—they have a strong goalie.
But you really want a rematch with Canada in the gold-medal game, don’t you?That would be amazing. We get up for the Canada games. They’re our biggest rival—physical and fast.
Is all the effort and preparation for naught if you don’t return home with a gold medal?No, and the only reason I say that is because I’m such a process person. I believe that the journey is important. However, I’m not going to say that if we don’t win a gold medal, we’re not going to be disappointed, because that’s our dream. That’s our goal, and that’s our focus.
Julie at a Glance
Vacation at the beach or on the slopes? “Beach.”
Favorite book? “Power of One, by Bryce Courtenay.”
Book or Nook? “Book.”
Favorite app? “Candy Crush.”
Best lunch ever? “Pancakes and omelets at Le Bremner, in Montreal.”
Favorite thing to do off the ice? “Spend quiet time with the people I love.”
Favorite vacation spot? “Italy.”
Favorite music? “Country music, Colbie Caillat and The Lumineers.”
Favorite sport other than hockey? “Soccer.”
Chuck Tannert is a regular contributor to RL Magazine. His work also has appeared in Wired and on CNET.