Maddie Rooney
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Maddie Rooney, Olympic hockey hero, takes her talent to Centennial High School

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A few weeks ago, Maddie Rooney, the star goalie of the U.S. Olympic champion hockey team, received a surprise phone call from her Minnesota youth hockey coach, Sean Molin.

Molin, who recently became head coach of the Centennial High School girls team outside the Twin Cities, was looking to fill an opening for a defense/goalie assistant.

“I knew she was busy, and I knew that she had lots of things [going on], but I thought, hey, she’s trying to get into coaching,” Molin said. “I thought it could be a good opportunity if we worked around her schedule.”

Rooney was interested. It had been five years since her last substantial conversation with Molin, who had coached her for a few years from age 12, on boys teams in peewees and bantams.

Rooney almost never became a goalie. Her dad was reluctant in her elementary school days, not believing in her ability enough to spend on equipment, she has said. It took almost two years of begging before her wish came true in the form of Christmas presents at age 9 or 10.

She remembers her first time earning a USA jersey. At 16, she was cut from an under-18 national team selection camp, but a goalie who made the roster was injured. Rooney had already departed for Minnesota, so she flew back to Lake Placid, N.Y., later that same day.

Since her last significant chat with Molin, Rooney finished her high school career with the boys team. She made the 2017 IIHF Women’s World Championship roster as the U.S.’ least-experienced goalie (and the only teenager). That November, U.S. coach Robb Stauber confided in Rooney at a practice that she was already penciled in for the Olympic gold-medal game the following February, which Stauber never shared publicly until after the Games.

Rooney made the 2018 Olympic team. She started all but one game in South Korea, including the final against Canada, won by the U.S. in a shootout for its first Olympic title since 1998. Rooney was one of the standouts. Somebody changed the position on her Wikipedia page from “goalie” to “Secretary of Defense.”

She returned home to Minnesota to find a letter from U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. She went on “Ellen” and “The Tonight Show,” sitting the closest to Jimmy Fallon of the four U.S. players chosen for the couch interview (the others: captain Meghan Duggan and twins Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson and Monique Lamoureux-Morando, all at least eight years older than Rooney).

Rooney eased back into normal life. For her, that meant business marketing classes at the University of Minnesota-Duluth and her last two seasons playing for the Bulldogs. Hopes were high.

In Rooney’s sophomore season — before taking a year break for the Olympics — the Bulldogs made the eight-team NCAA Tournament for the first time in six years. She slashed her goals-against average nearly in half (to 1.65) and improved her record from 5-12 in 19 freshman games to 25-7-5, playing a nation-leading 98.6 percent of the team’s minutes.

In her junior season — the year after the Olympics — Rooney saw her GAA rise to 2.80 and her save percentage drop from her epic sophomore year, from .942 to .919. The team went 15-16-4.

“The outside pressure of the expectations that people had took a toll on me mentally, but looking back at it now, I’m grateful I went through that because it made stronger,” she said.

Meanwhile, Alex Cavallini, the only U.S. Olympic goalie not to start a game in South Korea, ascended. She was the top goalie in the CWHL and supplanted Rooney as the U.S. No. 1 under new coach Bob Corkum at the April 2019 World Championship.

“She was just flat out playing better at that time,” Rooney said. “I accepted my role for that tournament going into it.”

So Rooney, a year after denying four Canadians in the Olympic final shootout, watched from the bench as Cavallini denied four Finns in a world championship final shootout (after a Finland golden goal was controversially overturned upon review).

“I always say I’m more anxious on the bench than in the game,” Rooney said. “I was really happy for her to get the start. For it to come down to a shootout again after the Olympics was definitely weird to experience from the bench.”

This past winter, Rooney capped her college career with a resurgence. She brought her stats back near her sophomore-year level and finished with a winning season, albeit not reaching the ultimate goal of the NCAA Tournament (which ended up being canceled anyway due to the coronavirus, as did Rooney’s graduation). The campaign ended with a loss to Wisconsin on March 7. Rooney remembers sitting next to teammate Sydney Brodt in the post-game press conference, tears cascading.

She constructed a resume and LinkedIn profile to put her business marketing degree — emphasis on sports — to use. But she was always going to continue playing and coaching individuals or small groups of kids in the summer, part of her offseason routine.

That was the plan this summer, with an eye on joining the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) with the other top U.S. and Canadian Olympians. Then Molin called.

“Coaching high school has always been something I wanted to do,” said Rooney, who has done summer coaching since 2015 but no official role with a high school until now.

Come the fall, Rooney’s schedule will include PWHPA practices three days a week, weekday high school team practices, two or three high school games a week and weekend PWHPA games.

“One thing I’m in fear of,” in coaching, Rooney said, “if I get in a position where I’m not sure of the answer for a defensive position, that’s probably what I’m fearful for. Don’t know if that’s going to happen, but that’s probably my fear.”

Rooney can lean on the fact she’s not attempting something unprecedented. Natalie Darwitz, a 2002, 2006 and 2010 Olympian, coached high school and college during her playing career. Rooney’s Olympic teammates and fellow Minnesotans Hannah Brandt, Dani Cameranesi and Kelly Pannek have also coached high schoolers since PyeongChang.

“I think it’s good for her to get some experience learning to be assertive with the kids, and learn from a coaches’ perspective,” Molin said. “With her name, she’ll be able to get a head coaching job.”

Rooney will play, and perhaps coach, for as long as she can make the national team. Once she puts the pads away for good, she wants to pursue sports marketing. For now, this week will mark a turning point.

She began her regimented offseason training with a new personal goalie coach Monday. It’s her most serious work on ice since her last college game three months ago. Then on Thursday, Rooney begins the offseason high school coaching program. It’s all so new, but with a dash of familiarity.

“With the connection that I have with Sean, I also knew the other assistant coach pretty well, and it was close to home,” she said. “It all just seemed kind of like the right fit.”

MORE: U.S., Canada in same group for 2022 Olympic men’s hockey tournament

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Michael Phelps qualifies for first Olympics at age 15 in 2000

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In the biggest race of his young life, a 15-year-old Michael Phelps turned for the last 50 meters in fourth place of the 2000 U.S. Olympic Trials 200m butterfly final on Aug. 12, 2000.

His mom, Debbie, couldn’t watch. She turned away from the Indiana Natatorium pool and stared at the scoreboard. Both Debbie and Phelps’ coach, Bob Bowman, mentally prepared their consolation speeches for the rising Towson High School sophomore outside Baltimore.

Then Phelps, fueled by nightly Adam’s Mark chicken sandwich-and-cheesecake room service and amped by DMX on his CD player, turned it on. He zoomed into second place, becoming the youngest U.S. male swimmer to qualify for an Olympics since 1932.

Phelps had “come out of nowhere in the last six months” to become an Olympic hopeful, NBC Sports swimming commentator Dan Hicks said on the broadcast. True, Phelps chopped five and a half seconds off his personal best that March.

“He doesn’t know what it means to go to the Olympics and how it’s going to change his life,” Tom Malchow, the 1996 Olympic silver medalist who held off Phelps in that trials final, said that night, according to The Associated Press. “He’s going to find out soon.”

Phelps, who did his trademark arm flaps before the trials final, made Bowman look like a prophet. Four years earlier, the coach sat Debbie down for a conversation she would not soon forget.

“Told me what he projected for Michael,” Debbie said, according to the Baltimore Sun‘s front-page story on a local 15-year-old qualifying for the Sydney Games. “He said that in 2004, he would definitely be a factor in the Olympics. He also said that he could be there in 2000, to watch out for him. At the time, he was only 11.”

The trials were bittersweet for the Phelps family. Whitney, one of Phelps’ older sisters, withdrew before the meet with herniated discs in her back that kept her from making an Olympics after competing in the 1994 World Championships at age 14.

After Phelps qualified for the Olympics, one of the first people to embrace him was Whitney on the pool deck.

The next week, Phelps, still with bottom-teeth braces, did his first live TV interview on CNN, swiveling in his chair the whole time, according to his autobiography, “Beneath the Surface.”

The next month, Phelps finished fifth in his Olympic debut, clocking a then-personal-best time that would have earned gold or silver at every previous Olympics.

Following the Olympic race, gold medalist Malchow patted Phelps on the back, according to “No Limits,” another Phelps autobiography. What did Malchow say?

“The best is ahead of you.”

MORE: Meet Arnie the Terminator, Katie Ledecky’s top rival

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Arnie the Terminator: Aussie rival to Katie Ledecky an unlikely swim story

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In August 2016, a 15-year-old Australian swimmer named Ariarne Titmus followed the Rio Olympics as she prepared to fly to Maui for the Junior Pan Pacific Championships.

Titmus paid special attention to her best events, the 200m, 400m and 800m freestyles. Katie Ledecky swept them, breaking two of her own world records.

“I remember watching her races thinking, like, this chick is nuts,” Titmus told NBC Sports in Australia early this year. “She’s just doing stuff that no one’s gonna get near.”

Three years later, Titmus stunned Ledecky at the world championships, chasing down the American in the last 50 meters of the 400m freestyle. She became the first woman to beat Ledecky in a distance race in seven years and a bona fide rival one year from the Tokyo Games.

Ledecky at first attributed her late fade to tight and tired legs. Then she spent seven hours the next day in a South Korean emergency room with what she believed was a stomach virus.

“She was sick,” said Dean Boxall, Titmus’ South African-born coach, “and we happened to pounce.”

Titmus’ time — 3:58.76, a personal best by .59 — was slower than Ledecky’s wins at her previous three major international meets — Rio Olympics, 2017 Worlds and 2018 Pan Pacific Championships.

“It wasn’t a good swim by Arnie,” said Boxall, a vocal coach known to shout Ledecky’s name in practices. “And I know it wasn’t a good swim by Katie. Definitely not. But there was things that Arnie did in that race I was pleased with, and there was a lot of things that she did that I was not happy with at all.”

The Olympic postponement to 2021 gives Titmus and Boxall another year to work on those inefficiencies down in Brisbane. Another year to mature, to turn 20 years old before the Games.

“I try not to dwell on that [beating Ledecky] too much,” Titmus, sometimes called “the Terminator” by Australian press, said of the world championships, where she also out-split Ledecky in the 4x200m free relay and took bronze behind the American in the 800m free. “Next year’s the big one at the Olympics.”

Nowhere is swimming closer to a national sport than in Australia, but none of its Olympic champion Dolphins hail from Tasmania, an island 150 miles south of the mainland.

Notable Tasmanian sports persons include cricketer Ricky Ponting, retired NASCAR driver Marcos Ambrose and woodchopping world champion David Foster, but no listed swimmers.

Stephanie Rice, the last Australian female swimmer to win an individual Olympic title in 2008, visited “Tassie,” the state a little bigger than West Virginia, nearly a decade ago. She met a young Titmus, who still remembers what Rice scribbled: “Be the best you can be.”

“I say it’s my favorite quote,” Titmus said. “She wrote it on my shirt, so it has to be my favorite quote.”

Titmus was born a week before the Sydney Olympics — “She loved watching Thorpie,” her mom said — and grew up on 16 acres of country land. The family — parents Steve and Robyn and younger sister Mia — had horses, a trampoline and a swimming club just down the road in Launceston.

They also had an indoor pool (areas of Tasmania approach freezing in the winter). One evening more than 15 years ago, Robyn was chopping vegetables and peered to see her elder daughter, then a toddler without formal swim lessons, doing the breaststroke.

“We didn’t know anybody at the swimming club,” said Steve, a longtime TV journalist. “And we turned up and said, hi, we’re the Titmuses. We’ve got a daughter called Ariarne, and she wants to race. Tuesday nights they had club night, and she jumped in the water, and away she went.”

Titmus wasn’t the fastest at first, but by the time she won a third Australian junior title, she became too big for the Apple Isle.

“[My coach] said, look, you can’t really do anything else down here,” Titmus remembered. “There’s no one for you to train with. There’s no one for you to race. It’s all up in Queensland. And he said, if you really want a shot at this, you should really move.”

The family relocated to Brisbane when she was 14 or 15, following Titmus’ coach.

We packed up the car, got on the boat, sailed to Melbourne,” said Robyn, a former national-level track sprinter. “We even stopped at Albury on the way for a training session because the coach she had at the time was a hard task master.”

Right around that time, she first met Boxall while with the Australian junior national team.

“I originally thought this guy is nuts,” Titmus said. “He gave us this speech about the New Zealanders or something were trying to be better than us. His veins were popping. It was crazy. I was like, I’m never ever going to have a coach like him.”

Boxall became her coach about a year later.

“I’ve got great athletes here that hurt themselves, and they enjoy going through the pain,” he said, “but you want to try and get that little bit extra from someone. You have to actually go there with them a little bit.”

In a sitdown, on-camera interview, Boxall first told how he met Titmus, his first impression of her and a bit about their relationship. He first mentioned Ledecky, umprompted, when asked the fourth question, about Titmus’ progression.

Boxall noted that Titmus swam the 400m freestyle in 4:09.81 at the August 2016 Junior Pan Pacific Championships.

“Ledecky went 3:56:46,” Boxall said, correctly noting Ledecky’s Rio Olympic world record to the hundredth, “so we’re 13 seconds off [at] that stage.”

Titmus raced Ledecky for the first time at the 2017 Worlds and finished fourth in the 400m, closing the gap to six seconds. In 2018, she took second to Ledecky at Pan Pacs, 1.16 seconds behind, becoming the first Australian to break four minutes in the event.

At 2019 Worlds, Boxall needed to be alone during the 400m free final. He left the Australian team box and snuck into a VIP area. As Titmus reeled Ledecky in, Boxall stood up and ran.

“Like a shot of adrenaline,” he said. “I couldn’t contain myself, but I was calmer as I’d ever been as well.

“That’s the first race that Arnie has raced Katie and actually was in the race. … Prior to that, it was just Katie.”

Titmus swam 10 seconds faster than when Boxall first compared her to Ledecky in August 2016.

“She’s 2.4 seconds off [Ledecky’s] world record,” Boxall said. “We know what the benchmark is, and we’re still a long way off.”

Titmus recorded the eighth-fastest 400m freestyle in history. Ledecky owns the top seven times.

“The greatest thing apart from obviously winning, I think, [is] being able to actually race someone who has been on her own for so long,” Titmus said. “I find it so crazy that now I’m in this situation where she’s my main rival.”

Scroll down the list, and you’ll see that the top 27 times in history (aside from the now-banned suit era) are shared by Ledecky (23) and Titmus (four).

“She’s certainly special,” Boxall said of his pupil. “Special enough? We’ll see.”

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