Gold? Glory? U.S. goalie Jessie Vetter just focused on rebounding from 3-2 loss

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SOCHI, Russia – Goalies are quirky. Goalies are in the spotlight. Goalies get the glory and the grief.

Even in the less publicized women’s game.

If an Olympic viewer can name one player on 2010 bronze medalist Finland’s team, it’s fortress Noora Raty. Canadian goalie Shannon Szabados has earned headlines for denying men’s shooters in the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference as a five-year player for Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.

Then there’s U.S. goalie Jessie Vetter.

She is not the biggest star of her team and, though she has played against men, it hasn’t been regular. She is from cozy Cottage Grove, Wis., the type of village that’s asking for substitute crossing guards for the school year on the front of its website.

That’s not to say the average U.S. sports fan is oblivious to Vetter. In fact, looking at her might give one that “I know her from somewhere” feeling.

Vetter is the daughter of an American Family Insurance agent and manager. (A goalie with insurance genes seems fitting.)

American Family Insurance bought ad space for Super Bowl XLVII, which featured a spot with Wisconsin sports stars Russell Wilson and Steve Stricker. Vetter, a former University of Wisconsin standout, was also shown for about three seconds. It wasn’t her first commercial for the company.

MORE: Canada win just start in US rivalry for these Games

In 2010, Vetter played every minute of the final four games of the Olympic hockey tournament. In the most crucial three minutes, she was beaten twice by 18-year-old Canadian Marie Philip-Poulin while Szabados blanked the U.S. as Canada won its third straight gold medal.

After the Olympics, Vetter, a 2009 Wisconsin graduate, could have joined the professional women’s league, called the Canadian Women’s Hockey League with four Canadian teams and a Boston club.

She elected instead to stay in the Madison area and cede game time for more training with a goalie coach, Larry Clemens.

“She’s kind of a hometown person,” Clemens said Wednesday by phone from Sun Prairie, Wis., during the second intermission of a 3-2 loss to Canada in a preliminary game. “She doesn’t leave very much.”

They worked together for three years before Vetter and the national team began living and training together in the lead up to Sochi. The lynchpins of their routine were hand-eye coordination and muscle memory drills.

“It’s something that I think has worked well for me,” said Vetter, an avid golfer. “I have an opportunity to have a job [working with area kids as a trainer after school] and kind of a normal life while I’m training and working hard towards this Olympics.”

Clemens admitted the drawback of not playing on a club team between Vancouver and Sochi.

VIDEO: Controversy clouds Canada win

“The biggest thing is game management,” he said after stepping out of the Sun Prairie Ice Arena for better phone reception. “You can’t recreate that in drills.”

Vetter managed random game action when area ex-college players gathered for games, most of them in their mid-20s to early 30s. But the Olympics were always the goal, even if it wasn’t a spoken one.

“We normally don’t talk about it too much,” Clemens said. “It’s obviously driving her. She doesn’t talk much about what she’s trying to accomplish.”

Vetter became the all-time minutes played leader for U.S. Olympic goalies on Wednesday. In 2012, it looked like that might not have been possible.

Molly Schaus was the No. 1 goalie for the World Championships in Burlington, Vt., two years ago. The U.S. pounced Canada 10-0 in preliminary play and then lost 5-4 in the gold-medal game. Vetter watched from the bench. She returned to the net at the 2013 World Championships, where the U.S. exacted revenge in Ottawa. Schaus was not on the roster because of a personal matter. Vetter and Schaus split the first two games in Sochi before Vetter played the third against Canada.

Canada, meanwhile, sat Szabados in the preliminary game against the U.S., a matchup that meant very little since both nations were assured opposite semifinal berths.

On Wednesday, Vetter was largely credited by players and U.S. coach Katey Stone with keeping her team in the game. She stopped 28 of 31 shots. (perhaps 29 of 31 given a controversial review to uphold one of Canada’s goals that may have crossed the line after a whistle)

The starting goalie for the next game, a Monday semifinal, hasn’t been decided yet.

“We’ve got some time to think about that,” Stone said. “I’m sure if [Vetter] gets another opportunity, she’s a very competitive kid, she’ll show up.”

Clemens believes that if the U.S. does reach the gold-medal game, and Vetter does start again, the result will determine her future with the national team.

Olympic gold would be a great way to complete a career. She could then return to Wisconsin with her sociology degree and myriad opportunities, not just substitute crossing guard.

Vetter wouldn’t commit though.

“Any athlete probably wants to go out on top,” she said, “but we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Watch Colin Kaepernick introduce Tommie Smith, John Carlos at USATF Night of Legends

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Twenty-four members of the 1968 U.S. Olympic track and field team appeared at the USATF Night of Legends. Two in particular received a standing ovation before an award presentation.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who earned 200m gold and bronze medals and then raised their black-gloved fists on the medal stand, were introduced via video by quarterback Colin Kaepernick, a fellow athlete fighting for social justice.

“Fifty years ago, these two men shook the world,” Kaepernick said in the video. “Their selfless and courageous act had an impact on the heart and mind of millions and have been a huge inspiration to me, personally. They laid the foundation not only for what the conscience of an athlete should look like, but also the world.”

Smith and Carlos then walked on stage at the Night of Legends, which honored the top U.S. athletes and performances of 2018, along with Hall of Fame inductees. NBCSN will air the event on Saturday at 11 p.m. ET.

They presented the Jesse Owens Award, which goes annually to the top U.S. male athlete. Fellow 200m sprinter Noah Lyles earned the honor.

“If he would give you and I a two-day head start, I think we could beat him in the 200m,” Carlos joked to Smith. “We’ve got to lean,” Smith replied.

Lyles, 21, joined Usain Bolt as the only men to break 19.7 seconds in the 200m four times in one year. His best time — 19.65 — was the world’s fastest since Bolt’s last world title in 2015. Lyles also became the youngest U.S. men’s 100m champion in 34 years. He’s the second-youngest person to earn USATF Athlete of the Year after Allyson Felix.

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MORE: John Carlos, Tommie Smith remember 1968 Olympics on 50th anniversary

Surfer Stephanie Gilmore’s path to Olympics joined by Cathy Freeman

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Stephanie Gilmore, like many Australians of her generation, points to one iconic sports moment of her childhood — Cathy Freeman winning the 400m at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

“I remember just being so blown away by the pressure [that Freeman felt],” said Gilmore, who was 12 years old at the time, two years before signing her first sponsor deal with Rip Curl. Surfing wasn’t part of the Olympics then, but it got Gilmore thinking about her other sports, like field hockey, soccer and track and field.

“I could go to the Olympics and throw a javelin or a discus,” she thought.

Gilmore stuck to surfing. Wise move.

Seventeen years later, Gilmore met Freeman for the first time. With the sport added to the Olympics, Surfing Australia brought Freeman to speak to more than a dozen Tokyo 2020 hopefuls at a camp in New South Wales last January.

“I was basically in such awe of her,” Gilmore said while visiting New York City last week, fresh off her female record-tying seventh world title. “She was so genuine and just talking about how she would find her sacred place in that moment that every single [set of] eyes all over the world were on her.

“Now I’m an even bigger fan.”

It’s hard to imagine Gilmore’s 2019 or 2020 topping her 2018. She won her first world title in four years and saw the World Surf League announce equal prize money for men and women starting next season. That came after a difficult stretch.

“My motivation and inspiration had sort of waned,” Gilmore said of going two and a half years between WSL wins from 2014 to 2017, including missing most of the 2016 season with hairline fractures around her knee. “Traveling so much can get a little tiring. You lose confidence, too, as you’re going along.”

Gilmore says that in Australia, each little beach has its own surf club. That’s where she began competing against the boys while Freeman was fresh in the minds of the Australian public. By 17, Gilmore was entering top-level international events, even winning her home beach event in 2005, then earned her first of four straight world titles in 2007.

On Dec. 27, 2010, Gilmore was attacked outside her home by a man with a metal bar whom she didn’t know. He hit her in the head and wrist, drawing blood and tearing ligaments before fleeing and later being caught, according to reports at the time.

Gilmore competed in the season’s first contest two months later, won an event four months after that and finished third in the season standings.

Gilmore won the first and last events of the 10-stop season in 2017, placing second overall to countrywoman Tyler Wright and just ahead of another Aussie, Sally Fitzgibbons. It’s likely that no nation will qualify more than two Olympic surfing spots per gender. Gilmore is three years older than Fitzgibbons and six years older than Wright. Time may not be on her side. All three were invited to Surfing Australia’s January camp for Olympic hopefuls.

The 2019 World Surf League standings should determine the two Aussie women who go to Tokyo. Gilmore needs to set herself apart from the best in the world, since they’re also the best from her country.

She did just that in 2018. Gilmore won three of the season’s first six events and clinched the world title on the first day of the 10th and final contest in Maui two weeks ago. She was the lone Australian woman to win any event this year. Wright missed the second half of the season with the flu and chronic fatigue.

Gilmore said the sting of losing the season’s first event — a quarter-mile from her Coolangatta home — and the anticipation of leading the standings going into the last event were proof that the motivation was back.

She couldn’t sleep the night before the Maui contest, unusual for her.

“All the what-ifs and the fear of failure and all these sorts of things in my head,” Gilmore said. “Yeah, it was mine to lose.”

She chilled out upon tackling the first wave of round one. She clinched the title when American Lakey Peterson bowed out in an early round. Only good friend Kelly Slater has more titles than Gilmore’s seven. The 11-time world champion said he believes Gilmore can reach his tally.

The two FaceTimed shortly after Gilmore’s celebration, explaining the intricacies of how waves barrel to WSL owner Dirk Ziff. Gilmore and Slater also talk music. Both play the guitar.

“He’s always been there,” said Gilmore, who is on a Led Zeppelin kick and often buys a guitar while at contests and leaves it there when she departs.

Gilmore believes that over the last decade surfing has gained on swimming and rugby in popularity in a nation where a majority of the population lives within a short drive of the ocean.

“The Olympic swimmers have always been held in the highest regard,” she said. “Ian Thorpe is probably our greatest Olympian. The swimmers have always been the most recognized athletes in our country. We’re such a small population in our country, but I feel like everyone surfs.”

MORE: Will Kelly Slater go for Tokyo 2020?

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