Turco releases book on gold medal team

by Sarah Rubenstein | 4/16/99 5:00am

Women's Studies professor Mary Turco realized from the start of her observations of the U.S. women's Olympic ice hockey team that she was witnessing something special.

This was not just another team aiming for the gold in the 1998 Nagano, Japan sporting events -- these were women who had overcome difficult odds to play a so-called male sport and were determined to win the first-ever gold medal by a women's Olympic hockey team with hard work and dignity.

"These women were all-American girls, committed amateur athletes, passionate about their sport and willing to sacrifice to have the opportunity to play," Turco told The Dartmouth. "They didn't come off as snobby, affected, pampered athletes."

The College's former dean of residential life tells their story in her first book, "Crashing the Net: The U.S. Women's Olympic Ice Hockey Team and the Road to Gold," which hit bookstores on April 1.

The Darlings of Nagano

At the Olympics, Turco said the team quickly became what she called the first chapter of her book, "The Darlings of Nagano."

She said fans and the press were "swept up in the joyfulness and the dedication of these women, playing a sex-stereotyped male sport with passion and dignity." Turco said Jim Nantz, the CBS host of the Olympics, told her he enjoyed watching and interacting with the team more than any other athletes he had ever worked with.

Turco said the team members, many of whom were scholar-athletes and included Sarah Tueting '98 and Gretchen Ulion '94, created the aura of competition for the higher purpose of showing that women can compete successfully in any male-stereotyped activity.

"A lot had endured setbacks, impediments, discrimination on the way to being selected," Turco said, telling stories about women on the team who had cut their hair, given themselves male pseudonyms and pretended to be boys in order to play on youth teams.

Turco said one of the most intriguing aspects of the team was its ability to project an "athletic aesthetic ... the attractiveness that comes from being a healthy woman rather than masking what you look like with clothing and makeup."

The team taught women to be comfortable with their bodies, and it showed that "it's more important to be competent than to be presentational," Turco said.

One of Turco's most memorable experiences at Nagano occurred after the women's Gold Medal game, when she asked the players if they had taken part in any special pregame "good luck" rituals in the locker room.

Turco learned that several of the teammates, including Tueting and Ulion, wore, without coordinated planning, a tee-shirt with a little sheep on it, given to them by the parents of Sarah Devens '96.

Devens was captain-elect of three Dartmouth athletic teams, including women's hockey, and was considered one of the best athletes ever to have attended the College.

She took her own life for unknown reasons during the summer before her senior year.

The athletes told Turco they were surprised to see others wearing the shirt and found that the coincidence had a "spiritual quality to it."

"The spirit of this most beloved friend who had died young and tragically was with them," Turco said with tears in her eyes, recalling that she was the dean on call during the night when Devens died.

Turco said one key lesson she learned from researching the team was that teachers, coaches and other role models -- male as well as female -- can have a strong positive impact on girls if they treat them with respect.

She said that respect was embodied by their coach, former Dartmouth ice hockey coach Ben Smith. When repeatedly asked by reporters what was different about coaching women rather than men, Smith said, "The blue nail polish under the gloves and the Beanie Babies in the hockey bag."

"All of the reporters would laugh and understand," Turco said. "There is no difference."

Following an inspiration

Turco was inspired to study female athletes by her daughter Molly, who played ice hockey on the New Hampshire Girls' Select Team that qualified for the girls' national tournament in 1996. Turco watched her daughter play in the national tournament having already witnessed her two sons previously compete in the boys' version of the same event.

"I'd seen all the hoopla around that kind of an event, and all of the accolades given to young boys for their athletic achievement. I was curious to see how girls would be treated," Turco said. "I was very impressed. I discovered that they were treated just as well."

Soon after her daughter's experience sparked Turco's interest in women's athletics, Smith was named coach of the women's Olympic ice hockey team. Turco discussed the "phenomenon" of women's ice hockey with Smith in the summer of 1997 and told him she was interested in writing an academic paper about the team, only to be convinced by Smith to write an entire book.

That August, Smith traveled to Lake Placid, N.Y. with 55 women trying out for the women's U.S. national team. There he met Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author David Halberstam, who was covering the events for a women's sports magazine.

Halberstam took an interest in Turco's book idea and put her in touch with his literary agent, who helped her contact publishing companies and eventually make a deal with HarperCollins.

By January, 1998 Turco was overseas in Nagano, Japan, spending extensive amounts of time observing and interviewing the U.S. women's Olympic ice hockey team.

Turco, who resigned from her job as dean of residential life to finish "Crashing the Net" by its summer, 1998 deadline, is currently working on another book about women who are academic scholars. She hopes to complete it by the end of 2000.