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Duo overcomes odds for Olympic spot

Seniors Selenski, Vittese help U.S. National Team upset world No. 1 Argentina in qualifying tournament, book unlikely ticket to London

Last Friday, Virginia field hockey players Michelle Vittese and Paige Selenski watched at the White House as President Barack Obama honored a group of athletes who, in his words, “could not have been better ambassadors and representatives for the United States.”

The president was addressing the country’s 2012 Olympians, including Vittese and Selenski, in a fitting end to a story that began with the duo’s once-unlikely journey to London.

Leaving Charlottesville
Pursuing an Olympic dream requires sacrifices that extend more deeply than the physical strain of training. By seeking a spot on the U.S. National Team, Selenski and Vittese gave up security in their sport.

“It was one of the hardest decisions of my life,” Vittese said. “It was so tough, because when you go through that, there is nothing given to you … you have to fight like hell to make the team. The whole process is just physically and mentally draining. Paige and I decided that we were going to do it as a group — neither would go through it alone.”

The duo first competed with the national team in summer 2010. That opportunity did not interfere with the 2010 college season, during which both Selenski and Vittese earned first-team All-American honors.

The 2011 season, however, was a riskier gamble. After their selection to Team USA’s roster for the 2011 Pan American Games in late August, the players opted to redshirt the 2011 season. To keep their still-uncertain chances at London alive, Selenski and Vittese had to leave their teammates short-handed in Charlottesville.

“We really weren’t able to replace Paige and Michelle at such a late time in the summer,” Virginia coach Michele Madison said. ”Recruiting was pretty much finished at that point, and they were such a core part of our team, with goal scoring and leadership, that they were too much to replace.”

The Pan American Games
The U.S. National Field Hockey team was far from guaranteed an Olympics spot. The winner of the Pan American Games would automatically qualify for London, but world No. 1 Argentina waited for the U.S. at the championship game.

“People did not have expectations for the Americans in the competition,” Vittese said. “My dad didn’t even go to Pan-Am’s because he thought we would lose. But the great thing about the young players on our team was that we had never played Argentina before. We never realized that we were supposed to lose.”

The U.S. team won that game 4-2, a victory some pundits dubbed as the greatest in U.S. field hockey history. Selenski scored the United States’ first goal to give the team an unexpected early lead. Vittese scored the fourth and final goal to secure the win. In the 25 years since the tournament began, Argentina had never lost a women’s field hockey game in the Pan American.

“That game was one of the most amazing experiences of my life,” Selenski said. “I even blacked out for part of it, just because there were so many emotions running through me and I just felt so united with my team … when I scored, I didn’t even realize I had scored until I saw the ball in the net. The feeling of your whole team running at you and jumping at you in the most important game I had played in up to that point was incredible.”

The victory resonated all the way back to Charlottesville where Virginia faced No. 6 Duke in its regular-season finale. The Cavaliers had lost every single prior ACC contest that year but pulled off an upset against the Blue Devils in penalty shots.

“The Friday night before that game we had watched USA beat Argentina,” Madison said. “The team got so much power from that game. It was almost a relief that we won the gold medal in the Pan American games because it showed us that it was worth the sacrifice. We all realized that there was a reason we had to play without Paige and Michelle. It gave our team power and confidence — I don’t know where it came from. We were going to go after Duke, and we did.”

London calling
Until the U.S. National Team released its final roster in June, nothing was certain for Selenski and Vittese.

“June 8th,” Vittese said, “That was the exact date we would find out if we made the team. It’s kind of funny how I know that date. There’s a tournament — the High Performance Tournament — [and] once the tournament is over, you have an individual meeting with [coaches] Lee Bodimeade and Nick Conway and they tell you if you’re going or not going.”

Both Vittese and Selenski made the final roster, cementing their spot at the Olympics.

The U.S. finished a disappointing 1-4 in pool play in the Olympics and lost to Belgium in the 11th-place game. Five of the team’s six games were decided by just one goal. Selenski also etched her name into the Olympic records with a goal in the finale against Belgium.

“Everyone in our pool I had seen at least four times before we played,” Vittese said. “But the truth is that playing there is a completely different level. You can hear everything, but you can’t think. It’s like everything is moving around you at 80 miles per hour. It’s the hardest thing to explain to people who have never experienced it. There are swarms of people watching you, screaming. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life and it’s going to help me be a greater athlete.”

Selenski and Vittese have not missed a beat as they have transitioned back to the college game. Despite a disappointing 8-12 last year, the Cavaliers netted a top-10 preseason ranking thanks to the return of the star duo.

Selenski is on pace to break the Virginia all-time scoring record set by Meridith Thorpe in 1998. Selenski started the season 59 points behind, but 14 goals and eight assists later, she has more than halved the deficit. Her 5.00 points per game as of last Monday ranks first in the nation.

“You get better every day playing with the best players,” Selenski said of training with the national team. “I think being away from school for a year, playing at that level twice a day everyday, has made me a better hockey player. It showed me the skill level and intensity I needed to play at the highest level.”

Vittese ranks fifth on the team in points but contributes greatly in terms of positioning. Madison said Vittese lifts other players with her spirit and enthusiasm.

Two years after their Olympic journey began, Selenski and Vittese are still reaping dividends from the experience. Virginia currently owns a 7-2 record with the duo — a vast improvement compared to its 4-5 mark at this point last season — and the team has held its top-10 ranking since the preseason.

“I think there is a new level of respect the team has for [me and Paige],” Vittese said. “I don’t want them to look up to me — I want to be on their level, so they feel comfortable with me. I want to be friends with all of them and get a family going. That’s what I’m bringing back to this team — the high level of skill and the leadership quality, while also realizing that they have to trust us.”