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A path to USA Hockey through gas stations, concussions, 90-save epic

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Goalie Nicole Hensley did not think the Olympics were possible.

Not while growing up in Colorado, which has never produced a female Olympic hockey player.

Not when she started her freshman season opener for little Lindenwood University. Ohio State shelled her with 64 shots in Columbus. She saved 60 in a 4-0 defeat. Lindenwood lost Hensley’s next seven starts, too.

But now, as the U.S. plays its pre-Olympic tournament this week, Hensley is all but assured of making the 23-woman roster for PyeongChang expected to be named in about two months.

She got the start in both games against rival Canada at the world championship tournament last spring, winning each time.

Four weeks later, Hensley was called into a meeting with U.S. head coach Robb Stauber, assistant Brett Strot and general manager Reagan Carey.

You made the national team, they told her. The Olympics are in nine months.

“I was practically in tears,” Hensley, 23, said. “It’s hard to remember anything else. I just couldn’t believe it, I guess.”

Hensley fell in love with the sport as a girl in Lakewood, a city seven miles southwest of Denver. How could she not. The hometown Avalanche made the NHL playoffs every season from when Hensley was 1 until she was 10.

“Her entire room was completely decked out in Avalanche memorabilia,” mom Linda said. “Hockey sticks, posters, anything that they sold at the Pepsi Center she had.”

She adored Joe Sakic.

“We were on vacation on the Outer Banks the year they won the Stanley Cup,” in 2001, Linda said. “The beach is right there, but we had to come in and watch every game.”

Hensley’s parents drove her and little sister Brittany (not much of a hockey fan, now on the Colorado State rodeo team) around the metropolitan area to local Conoco gas stations, where players and coaches signed autographs.

“We went to every single one of those signings,” Linda said.

Sakic once visited her local rink.

“She got an autograph on a crumpled piece of paper that she still has,” Linda said. “When he retired we had some friends of friends who knew him. They had put out a commemorative hockey stick with all his lifetime stats, so he autographed that stick for her.”

Hensley started out as a skater. She became a goalie to continue playing with boys when they started checking at pee-wee ages of 11 and 12.

By her last years of high school, Hensley traveled with the Colorado Select girls club team. Her senior season ended with a concussion after another skater ran into her.

“I actually blacked out,” Hensley said. “I guess I stood up and fell back down, but I don’t remember doing that.”

“When we got home and to our doctor a few days later, she still wasn’t remembering things properly and wasn’t counting properly,” Linda said.

It was not significant enough to question Hensley’s decision to accept her only hockey scholarship offer to Lindenwood. Symptoms cleared after two or three weeks.

Hensley joined a Lindenwood team that had gone 8-21 the previous season, its first as an NCAA program. The returning No. 1 goalie took a shot off her clavicle two or three weeks before the season opener.

So coaches decided Hensley would open her freshman year in net at Ohio State, a school with five times the enrollment of Lindenwood’s 11,000 or so.

“The instant look on her face was oh crap,” Lindenwood goalie coach Cory Whitaker said. “Then, right after that, it was, this is my chance.

“From that point on, you knew that she was going to do anything possible to not give up that starting position.”

Hensley was praised for only giving up four goals as Lindenwood was outshot 64-19. There would be plenty more games like it during a freshman campaign that included another concussion and a few thousand bus miles, including an 18-hour ride to Bemidji State in Minnesota.

Then there’s the conference tournament game that everyone talks about.

Robert Morris University pelted Hensley with 92 shots over three regulation periods and three overtimes. Hensley stopped 90 of them, shattering the NCAA Division I single-game record by 12 saves, but Lindenwood lost 2-1.

A Robert Morris assistant saved the puck and gave it to Lindenwood.

“That’s what started to spark interest, I think people started to say maybe this kid is capable of something more,” said Hensley, who felt fine after that game — until she tried to roll out of bed the next morning.

USA Hockey invited Hensley to a camp for the nation’s top development goalies after her freshman and sophomore seasons.

“I would have put myself maybe middle of the pack for the 12 that were there,” she said. “I never really saw myself standing out or anything like that.”

After her sophomore year, Carey called Hensley to invite her to a more select camp of six to nine goalies. Then, Hensley made the world championship team as the third and final goalie — and third-youngest player on the roster — following her senior year in 2016.

But it wasn’t until later in 2016 at an August camp when Hensley felt like an Olympic prospect.

“Up until that time, I had been somewhat intimidated to even be on the ice with people like Hilary KnightBrianna Decker and Meghan Duggan,” Hensley said, naming star forwards on the 2014 Olympic silver-medal team. “At that camp, I just started to realize I had the ability to play with them and that [the Olympics] could be a possibility.”

Rather than join a club team after graduating in 2016, Hensley stayed in Missouri, where she had a job as a video coach for Lindenwood and a goalie coach in St. Louis.

She was the only member of the 2017 World Championship team who had not played in a league that season.

No matter, she got the start for the opener against Canada over Alex Rigsby, who had blanked the Canadians in the 2016 World final but was mending from a torn hip capsule.

Hensley stopped all 18 Canadian shots, a performance that led Stauber, a former NHL goalie, to call on her again for both medal-round games. 11-0 over Germany in the semifinals. 3-2 over Canada in overtime for a fourth straight world title.

Hensley usually plays with a Bible verse somewhere on her mask. Maddie Rooney, a fellow goalie and roommate, said Hensley’s defining characteristics are that she devotes at least an hour a day to scripture and owns about 25 pairs of Nikes.

There’s also a small ice cream cone drawn at the base of her glove, an inside joke shared with her post-grad coach, Luke Venker.

“She used to get kind of upset if she couldn’t do something right, extremely frustrated, and we would start bickering at each other,” Venker said. “I go, ‘What’s going to make you happy right now?’ She yelled out, ‘Ice cream!’ The running joke is, if she gets mad, just think about ice cream.”

Hensley said that at Lindenwood, she would play in front of 60 fans “on a good night.” The school has never had a Winter Olympian, though two-time Paralympic champion hockey player Josh Pauls studied there, along with recent Summer Olympians.

Space was recently prepared in the athletic office for a framed U.S. hockey jersey to display next to a few football jerseys from NFL alumni.

“Goalies, they develop a little bit later than younger players,” Stauber said. “They can develop quite frankly in any program. Just because a goalie goes to Wisconsin doesn’t necesarily mean that they’re a lot better than somebody that’s at Lindenwood.”

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MORE: Hilary Knight’s trip to historic Olympic ice rekindles love for hockey

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Clarification: An earlier version of this post did not mention that two-time Paralympic champion Josh Pauls attended Lindenwood.

Jordan Thompson, U.S. volleyball’s new weapon, took unique route to NCAA history

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It was about this time last year that Jordan Thompson first appeared on the radar of U.S. women’s volleyball coach Karch Kiraly. Since, Thompson emerged as the youngest starter, and arguably a star, for the national team.

She goes into what could be her final weekend of college volleyball as one of the most dominant athletes in any sport. And one of the most unique stories in NCAA history.

Thompson plays not for a Big Ten or Pac-12 powerhouse, but for Cincinnati, a school that, before she arrived, never made it past the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

The unranked Bearcats upset second-ranked Pittsburgh in the second round last Saturday. They play Penn State, winner of six of the last 12 NCAA titles, in the Sweet 16 on Friday.

In 33 games this season, Thompson has registered a Division I-leading 768 kills, which is 143 more than the next most prolific attacker. That margin of 143 is the same number that separates No. 2 from No. 31.

Last season, she had 827 kills, which was 240 more than anybody else and a single-season record (by 112 kills) since NCAA match formats shifted from 30-point to 25-point sets in 2008.

She is a contender, if not a favorite, to be AVCA National Player of the Year. All of the previous winners dating to 1985 came from schools that reached at least one Final Four.

On Oct. 4, a UCF player’s face caught the wrong end of a Thompson attack. Cincinnati teammates watching from the bench dropped to the floor in astonishment.

Thompson tallied 50 kills in one match alone on Nov. 3, becoming the first D-I player to do so in 20 years.

That happened on Senior Day. Before that match, Thompson received a plaqued No. 23 jersey and flowers.

She posed for a photo standing with her husband, former Cincinnati offensive lineman Blake Yager, her mother, Mary, whose bribes helped Thompson develop into an attacker, and her father, 1990s Harlem Globetrotter Tyrone Doleman (and brother of Pro Football Hall of Famer Chris Doleman).

Mary has been most instrumental, raising Thompson as a single mom in Minnesota. Thompson, who is 6 feet, 4 inches now, was always tall for her age.

She played youth basketball against older girls and grew frustrated by the physical contact. Kneepads weren’t comfort enough. She decided to give volleyball a try in middle school.

“She was very timid,” Mary said of her daughter, who has since gotten 10 tattoos, including one of a hummingbird. “She would tell me she didn’t want to hurt anyone on the other side of the net. I told her I would give her a dollar for every time she would whack it. And I would give her $10 if she would actually hit someone on the other end of the court.”

It took a while, but Thompson was motivated by her love of horses. The payouts from her mom went toward a saddle and a bridal. A box with horse equipment remains in the family garage back home.

“She was trying to build up her supplies to be able to one day say to me, look, I’ve got a saddle, I’ve got all of my tack, I’ve got stuff to clean the hooves, can we get a horse now?” Mary said. 

After just two years of club volleyball, Thompson received her first Division-I scholarship offer. It came from Syracuse. Thompson was a high school sophomore.

“In the back of my head, I’m thinking, I’m never going to get another offer, so I better take this one,” she said.

Thompson was intent on Syracuse for a year before a coaching change led her to decommit. She wasn’t sure if many schools knew she had reopened her recruiting. A Minnesota club teammate had committed to Cincinnati and suggested Thompson take a visit.

The Bearcats went 3-29 the season before she committed.

“I said, Jordan, you can play D-I at Texas. You can go to Nebraska,” Mary said. “She was like, no, no, I want to play all four years. I actually want to get playing time, mom. She really struggled believing how good she could be.”

The biggest obstacle came junior year. In a preseason training session, Thompson collided with that Minnesota club teammate, Jade Tingelhoff, and tore the UCL in her dominant, right arm. She was in an armpit-to-wrist brace for two months post-Tommy John surgery, including three weeks with her arm locked in place.

She couldn’t brush her hair, had a hard time brushing her teeth and found it difficult showering and getting dressed.

She still went to every Bearcats game and traveled with the team. Cincinnati went from 22-10 her sophomore season to 13-19 that year without her on the court.

“It ended up being OK,” Tingelhoff said. “She came back that next season — I’m not kidding — 10 times as better than she was even the previous year.”

As a redshirt junior, Thompson and her 827 kills helped Cincinnati to a 26-8 record and its first NCAA Tournament win in seven years. She also caught the eye of Kiraly by the end of that 2018 season.

“She was one of the elite players in all of college volleyball,” he said. “Probably the only one who came from a conference other than the ones known for producing the most NCAA champions, like the Big Ten and the Pac-12.”

By last spring break, Thompson had become a favorite of U.S coaches at a camp to help select teams for summer international tournaments.

She had a one-on-one conversation with Kiraly, the only person to own Olympic indoor and beach gold medals. The legend told her she had potential to play at the Pan American Games. Later, he upped the praise to say she was ready for the top-level Nations League, a precursor to Olympic qualifying.

Thompson made her national team debut in May. By August, she came off the bench to help spur a comeback in a crucial Olympic qualifying match. The next day, she was in the starting lineup for the U.S.’ final Olympic qualifier, where the Americans clinched a Tokyo 2020 berth.

“I think a lot people don’t know she is still in college,” two-time U.S. Olympic outside hitter Jordan Larson said then. “She still has one more year left.”

Agents reached out, but Thompson had no intention of giving up her final year of NCAA eligibility. She wanted to make history at Cincinnati. That was secured with the Sweet 16 berth.

With the new year, she will trade the Cincinnati red and black for Team USA colors. She will keep in mind what the U.S. coaching staff told the team during Olympic qualifying and what she called a dream summer.

“My big goal in life was I just wanted to be in the USA gym,” said Thompson, who is working on her master’s in criminal justice. “To hear that we’re all working towards this goal of trying to make this roster, and we are being looked as potential players to make that roster, my jaw dropped. To know that it’s even a remote possibility is mind-blowing.”

VIDEO: Brazil volleyball star faints during courtside interview

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Tahiti chosen for Olympic surfing competition at 2024 Paris Games

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Paris 2024 Olympic organizers want the surfing competition to be held in Tahiti, an island in French Polynesia that is about 9,800 miles from Paris.

It would break the record for the farthest Olympic medal competition to be held outside the host. In 1956, equestrian events were moved out of Melbourne due to quarantine laws and held five months earlier in Stockholm, some 9,700 miles away.

The Paris 2024 executive board approved the site Thursday — specifically, the village of Teahupo’o — and will propose it to the IOC. It beat out other applicants Biarritz, Lacanau, Les Landes and La Torche, all part of mainland France.

“If, ever, we have two alternatives, and where one alternative gives the athletes of a particular sport more closeness to the heart of the Games and allows them to enjoy the magic and the spirit of the Games better, then in the interest of the athletes, we prefer this solution,” IOC President Thomas Bach said in June when asked about Tahiti’s interest in hosting surfing.

Surfing will debut at the 2020 Tokyo Games but is not on the permanent Olympic program. Surfing was among sports added to the Paris 2024 program in June and could be added for the 2028 Los Angeles Games.

MORE: U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics

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