Feb. 2, 2006
Roundabout Route Leads to Turin
By PAT BORZI
Good news came to Kathleen Kauth in the same way disappointment had.
Last month, Ben Smith, coach of the United States women's hockey team, gathered his players in a hotel meeting room in Trenton to announce the names of those who did not make the final cut for the Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy.
Four years earlier in a similar meeting, Smith called Kauth's name. This time, Kauth said, she felt she had done enough to make the team, but her stomach still tingled with nervousness. When Smith finished without naming her, Kauth called home to her mother, Anne, an English teacher at Saratoga Springs High School in upstate New York.
"I knew her heart rate had been racing the previous 48 hours," Kauth said. "I really had to ease her worries."
She added with a chuckle: "She was giddy. You don't know your mother could get giddy that often, but she got giddy. Then, being the English teacher, she likened it to 'The Odyssey.' "
That was an apt description of her circuitous route to Turin.
Kauth, without hesitation, said she did not deserve a spot on the 2002 team. Even after a stellar career at Brown University, where she led the team in scoring as a senior, Kauth quickly realized that she could not compete with seasoned international players like Cammi Granato and Angela Ruggiero. Their skills, she said, intimidated her.
Smith agreed with Kauth's assessment. "She was on the outside looking in," he said.
Kauth committed herself to improving her conditioning, strength and skating skills. And this time she made the team as a versatile forward, an aggressive forechecker and penalty killer. Not even a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee, sustained in an August 2004 touch football game, deterred her.
"She's the embodiment of a true Olympic athlete," said Ruggiero, a close friend and a two-time Olympic medalist. "I saw firsthand how hard she trained. I can't say enough about her and how she improved her play."
Nor can Kauth's mother. "I have so much admiration for her," Anne Kauth said in a telephone interview. "We're doing essays on heroes in school, and people are bringing in all these articles and things. Even if she wasn't mine, she would be my role model.
"No one I know has worked harder for this goal. I never thought it would happen until just recently."
Kauth's determination grew from something her father taught her.
Don Kauth Jr., a former teacher, was a bank analyst for Keefe, Bruyette and Woods, a firm on the 85th floor of the south tower of the World Trade Center. Sixty-eight of the company's employees died in the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Don Kauth was one of them. A runner until slowed by cranky knees, he doted on his children and built them a skating rink in his backyard. Kathleen Kauth remembers watching her father standing outside on frigid nights with a garden hose, spraying a fresh layer of water atop the ice to freeze.
The Kauths divorced in the mid-1990's, but Don lived only a mile away and remained a fixture in their lives. "He was so good teaching us how to go for what we wanted in life," said Kauth, the second oldest of four children. "That was Don Kauth. And don't be afraid to fail, whatever it is. It sounds like a cliché, but it's true. He always said the only failure is not to try."
After his death, and after her Olympic disappointment, Kathleen Kauth took eight months off to choose between more hockey or medical school. A stint as a volunteer assistant coach at Brown, then two months backpacking through Europe with Ruggiero and friends, relaxed her and crystallized her thinking. Kauth recalled her father's words and decided to give the Olympic team one more shot.
"Having played with those guys for a few months in 2001, I realized why I didn't make the team," Kauth said before a recent game at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. "They're fantastic players, and I realized there was a difference between them and myself.
"Ultimately, it was sort of an enlightening experience seeing the stuff that they were doing. They were better skaters. Their shots were better. They were better stickhandlers. But I knew I never really worked on any of those things, and I could get better at that. That's what the difference was: I believed I could get better."
While pursuing a master's degree in public health at Boston University, Kauth took 6 a.m. skating lessons every Monday from Paul Kennedy, a respected women's high school coach in Massachusetts and the father of Courtney Kennedy, now a teammate on the United States Olympic team. Kauth also played frequent pickup games against men along with the Olympic veterans Katie King and Tricia Dunn at a rink in Reading, Mass., north of Boston.
In the fall of 2003, with her master's nearly finished -- she still needs to turn in her final paper -- Kauth moved to Ontario to join the Brampton Thunder of the National Women's Hockey League. Scoring 19 points in 19 games did wonders for her confidence. At the 2004 world championships, she had two goals and two assists in five games as the United States took a silver medal behind Canada. For the first time, Kauth felt equal to her peers.
"I wasn't fighting myself," she said.
Then came the torn ligament. She returned to the ice for Brampton five months after surgery and one month sooner than expected, and by this year's world championships had regained her spot on the United States team. On the team's pre-Olympic tour, she had three goals and four assists in 18 games.
"When you look at her now, she's a lean, mean, fighting machine," Smith said. "She tests out in our top group all the time. She's just a workhorse that way. That inner determination is what made her what she is."
Ruggiero said: "She was on the verge of being a great player, and she really defined herself in the last three years as one of the best players in the world. It was all her hard work. She's a gifted athlete, but she made herself into a great athlete. Everyone on the team has a lot of respect for her, especially having to battle some personal issues.
"Obviously, I'm so happy for her. She really deserves it. If there's one kid you want to make the team, it's her."