Taylor Heise is U.S. hockey’s new star, fueled by Olympic cut and pedal tractor pulls

Taylor Heise
Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

As a young teen, Taylor Heise tacked a poster-size goal sheet in her bedroom, checking off each one as she met it. The Minnesotan also uncapped a black Sharpie and wrote the word “Olympics” in a strategic place on the bright green wall: just above her light switch.

The family since had the room repainted. The word is no longer there.

“I can see it in my mind,” she said. “I switched the light on and off in my room so many times.”

Heise is now plenty visible in U.S. hockey, skyrocketing through the program since being cut from 2022 Olympic team consideration two summers ago.

In the last 13 months, she won NCAA Player of the Year while at the University of Minnesota, made her senior national team debut at the summer 2022 World Championship (after testing positive for COVID, driving 13 hours home during isolation to shoot pucks into the family shed and then flying across the Atlantic Ocean the day before the opening game), led those worlds in points and was named MVP. She shares the team lead in points at this year’s worlds.

Among forwards, only future Hall of Famer Hilary Knight spent more time on the ice going into Saturday’s semifinal against Czechia (formerly called the Czech Republic) and a possible final against Canada on Sunday in Brampton, Ontario.

The U.S. is in need of an infusion of attacking talent now more than at any point in the last decade. It lost the last three major championship finals to Canada, and is on a five-game losing streak overall in the rivalry. Stalwart forward Brianna Decker announced her retirement last month. Olympic captain Kendall Coyne Schofield is out this year on pregnancy leave.

Enter Heise, a 5-foot-10 forward with a dominating presence, ability to take over a game by herself and skill to take the puck from end to end.

That’s how University of Minnesota associate head coach Natalie Darwitz described her. Darwitz, the 2010 U.S. Olympic team captain, likened Heise to Krissy Wendell, a fellow Gophers standout who was captain of the 2006 Olympic team and three times the leading U.S. points scorer at worlds.

“[Heise] wants the puck on her stick in big-time moments,” Darwitz said. “In two years, I’ve never seen her have an off day or an off practice or off game.”

Like so many, Heise fostered that determination as a child. But her story is unique, starting with the setting: Lake City, population 5,000, on Lake Pepin, about 70 miles southeast of the Twin Cities. It’s billed as “The Birthplace of Water Skiing.”

Heise’s parents both played basketball at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. They had three kids, and three hoops. Heise credits her initial drive to her younger brothers, joking they “would be willing to beat the crap out of you all the time.”

Around age 4, she began a three-year foray into pedal tractor pulling at local county fairs, often taking on kids twice her size. She placed second in the 5-year-old division at a national championship at the famed Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota.

In first grade, she brought home a flyer advertising recreational hockey on Lake City’s lone rink. Her favorite early memory of the sport: those first skates with pink laces. But ice time was limited, so she honed her shot inside the family’s three-and-a-half-car garage.

She eventually switched districts so she could play for a school, which led to three-hour roundtrip weekday commutes from Lake City.

“She’s kind of big and strong now, but she started out as a seventh grader and weighed 98 pounds,” mom Amy said. “The coach didn’t want her on the ice until she was 100. She spent the whole year in seventh grade trying to beat 100 pounds, and she never got there.”

Heise also learned about short- and long-term goal setting. One of her first ambitions was to make the under-18 national team at age 15. She did.

She won three consecutive gold medals at the U18 World Championship from 2016-18. After a COVID break, it was time to make the jump to the senior national squad.

She got a shot in 2021, but in a four-month stretch missed out on three teams. She was dropped after an evaluation camp for the originally scheduled but postponed April 2021 World Championship, then cut again after trying out for the national team residency program that summer, missing both the rescheduled worlds and the 2022 Olympics.

She tries to block out that July 2021 cut day that put her Olympic dream on hold for another four years. The Olympic coach was Joel Johnson, who had coached Heise as a captain on the U18 national team and recruited and coached her at Minnesota.

“Joel knew me as a person,” she said. “He goes, ‘I know you’re going to figure it out.’ He goes, ‘I just think you need time.’ I understand that, but for me, I didn’t want to hear that in the moment. So I feel like it took me a few days to process it.”

Heise decided that staying upset wouldn’t help her get on the team in the following years. Her parents helped her develop a new mindset.

“If they [USA Hockey] don’t want me, then I’m going to prove in the whole next year that was the wrong decision,” she said.

If Heise wanted a tangible piece of motivation, she received several in a box that arrived at the family doorstep. It included Olympic team apparel and a credential that ultimately went unused. Replicas of her 2022 Olympic alternate jersey are available on USA Hockey’s website for $275.

As the Olympic team earned silver without her, Heise led NCAA Division I hockey in points and then won the Patty Kazmaier Award for female player of the year in March 2022. Teammates started calling her “Patty,” which was also fitting as she was born on St. Patrick’s Day.

Darwitz said Heise’s hunger extends to making those around her better. Makes sense, given Heise’s favorite player growing up was forward Julie Chu, who never led the U.S. in goals but was a national team captain and Olympic flagbearer.

A year after being cut from the Olympic team, Heise delivered on her personal pact to make herself indispensable. She was named to new coach John Wroblewski‘s roster for the summer 2022 Worlds.

After a positive COVID test, Heise didn’t arrive in Denmark until the day before the opening game. Wroblewski thought so highly of Heise that he still put her on the second line with veterans Alex Carpenter and Amanda Kessel. She tallied five assists, tying a women’s worlds record. This was not just Heise’s world championship debut, but her first senior national team game of any kind.

She finished with tournament leads in goals (seven) and assists (11). She became the first player in U.S. women’s hockey history to lead an Olympic or world team in goals or points in her major championship debut since the first worlds in 1990. She was named tournament MVP even though the U.S. lost to Canada in the final.

“I put in the work,” Heise said Friday, reflecting on the breakout performance.

Heise’s bedroom wall may have been painted over, but she now has goals written down and tucked away in a drawer. She is willing to share them. They include one she can check off this weekend — winning a world title — and another she is on pace to fulfill in three years — playing at the Olympics.

“People say they’re going to do something, but if I’m writing it down, I’m going to do it,” she said. “I understand [making an Olympic team] is not all up to me. I understand that people pick the team, but I guess, when I wrote that, it was to train as hard as I can to make it clear that I’m the one for the job.”

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Iga Swiatek wins third French Open title, fourth Grand Slam, but this final was not easy


Iga Swiatek won her third French Open title and her fourth Grand Slam overall, pushed to a third set in a major final for the first time.

Swiatek, a 22-year-old Pole, outlasted unseeded Czech Karolina Muchova 6-2, 5-7, 6-4 on Saturday at Roland Garros. Muchova tested Swiatek, the only singles player in the Open Era to win their first seven major final sets. She became the first player to take a set off Swiatek in the tournament.

Swiatek looked en route to another major final sweep, up 3-0 in the second set. She then committed 11 unforced errors (versus four winners) over the rest of the set as Muchova rallied back (with 10 winners versus 11 unforced errors).

Muchova then won the first eight points of the third set. Swiatek, under the most pressure of her career on the sport’s biggest stages, passed the test. The players exchanged breaks of serve, and Muchova had another break point for a chance to serve for the championship, but Swiatek fended her off.

“After so many ups and downs, I kind of stopped thinking about the score,” Swiatek said. “I wanted to use my intuition more because I knew that I can play a little bit better if I’m going to get a little bit more loosened up.”

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Women | Men | Broadcast Schedule

No woman lower than the 14th seed has beaten both world Nos. 1 and 2 at a Grand Slam since the WTA rankings began in 1975. Muchova, ranked 43rd, nearly pulled it off.

“The feeling is a little bitter because I felt it was very close,” she said. “But overall, I mean, to call myself Grand Slam finalist, it’s amazing achievement.”

The French Open finishes Sunday with the men’s final. Novak Djokovic faces Casper Ruud, eyeing a 23rd major title to break his tie with Rafael Nadal for the men’s singles record. NBC, NBCSports.com/live, the NBC Sports app and Peacock air live coverage at 9 a.m. ET.

Go back to the fall 2020 French Open. Swiatek, a 54th-ranked teen, won the tournament without dropping a set for her first tour-level title.

Since, she climbed to the top of the rankings (and has stayed there for 62 weeks running), tied the longest WTA win streak in 32 years (37 matches in a row in 2022) and won majors on clay and hard courts.

She beat challengers from different categories in major finals: a Slam champ (Sofia Kenin), a teen phenom (Coco Gauff), an emerged rival (Ons Jabeur) and now an unseeded (because of injuries)-but-dangerous veteran in Muchova. Swiatek is the youngest woman to reach four major titles since Serena Williams in 2002.

Yet this French Open began with talk of a Big Three in women’s tennis rather than singular dominance. Since last year’s French Open, Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka and Russian-born Kazakh Elena Rybakina both won their first major and beat Swiatek multiple times.

Swiatek faced neither in Paris but still called it “a pretty stressful tournament,” noting a right thing injury that forced her to retire during her last match before the tournament.

Sabalenka was stunned by Muchova in Thursday’s semifinals, the erratic serving and nerves of her past reappearing. Rybakina had to withdraw earlier in the tournament due to illness.

Next up: the grass court season and Wimbledon, where Swiatek hasn’t made it past the fourth round in three tries. She did win the 2018 junior title at the All England Club. but Sabalenka and Rybakina have had more recent success there.

If Swiatek can lift the Venus Rosewater Dish, she will be an Australian Open shy of a career Grand Slam. Her chances of adding an Olympic gold medal to that collection are very high, given Roland Garros hosts tennis at the 2024 Paris Games.

“I’m not setting these crazy records or goals for myself,” she said. “I know that keeping it cool is the best way to do it for me.”

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Novak Djokovic into French Open final with records at stake after beating Carlos Alcaraz


Novak Djokovic heads into Sunday’s French Open final with all sorts of history at stake after eliminating a cramping Carlos Alcaraz in a showdown semifinal.

Djokovic faces Casper Ruud, eyeing a 23rd major title to break his tie with Rafael Nadal for the men’s singles record. NBC, NBCSports.com/live, the NBC Sports app and Peacock air live coverage at 9 a.m. ET.

On Friday, Djokovic took out the top seed Alcaraz 6-3, 5-7, 6-1, 6-1, but the match was even when Alcaraz began showing signs of right leg cramping. The 20-year-old Spaniard attributed it to the “tension” of the match, saying he was nervous for his first time facing Djokovic at a major.

“I have never felt something like I did today,” he said, adding that it was full-body cramps. “If someone says that he get into the court with no nerves playing against Novak, he lies.”

Alcaraz stopped play at 1-all in the third set and had trouble walking. He forfeited the next game, stipulated by the rules for receiving medical treatment for severe muscle cramping when not at a change of ends or end of a set.

Djokovic then won the next nine games. Alcaraz played with limited mobility and without the charismatic magic that’s charmed the tennis world.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Women | Men | Broadcast Schedule

“First and foremost, I have to say tough luck for Carlos. I feel for him. I feel sorry,” Djokovic said to begin an on-court interview. “I told him at the net he knows how young he is. He’s got plenty of time ahead of him, so he’s going to win this tournament, I’m sure, many, many times.”

Djokovic was told of Alcaraz’s reasoning for the cramps.

“I have experienced that several times,” he said. “Early in my career I was struggling quite a bit physically. I can understand the emotions and circumstances that affect you mentally and emotionally.”

The semi was billed as perhaps the greatest inter-generational match in men’s tennis history, the first time that Alcaraz played a member of the Big Three at a major.

Their 16-year age gap was the largest to take place for men this deep in a major since the 1991 U.S. Open (Jim Courier d. Jimmy Connors) and the largest age gap for any major match between Slam champs since 2006 Wimbledon (Rafael Nadal d. Andre Agassi).

Unlike Friday, most of the previous torch-passing meetings took place when one man was not yet at his peak or the other was past his prime.

Typically, the younger player wins these types of duels. Djokovic, by prevailing over a foe 16 years younger this late in a major, broke the Open Era men’s age gap record of 14-plus years set by Roger Federer, who beat Hyeon Chung at the 2018 Australian Open.

Now, Djokovic heads to Sunday’s final as an overwhelming favorite against the Norwegian Ruud, a 6-3, 6-4, 6-0 winner over German Alexander Zverev in the later semifinal. Ruud was runner-up to Nadal at last year’s French Open and runner-up to Alcaraz at last year’s U.S. Open.

Djokovic can become the first man to win all four majors at least three times. He can break Nadal’s record as the oldest French Open singles champion.

“I’ve been very fortunate that most of the matches in tournaments I’ve played in the last few years, there is history on the line,” he said. “The motivation is very high, as you can imagine.”

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