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.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

At the French Open, a Ukrainian mom makes her comeback

Elina Svitolina French Open

Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina, once the world’s third-ranked tennis player, is into the French Open third round in her first major tournament since childbirth.

Svitolina, 28, swept 2022 French Open semifinalist Martina Trevisan of Italy, then beat Australian qualifier Storm Hunter 2-6, 6-3, 6-1 to reach the last 32 at Roland Garros. She next plays 56th-ranked Russian Anna Blinkova, who took out the top French player, fifth seed Caroline Garcia, 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 on her ninth match point.

Svitolina’s husband, French player Gael Monfils, finished his first-round five-set win after midnight on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning. She watched that match on a computer before going to sleep ahead of her 11 a.m. start Wednesday.

“This morning, he told me, ‘I’m coming to your match, so make it worth it,'” she joked on Tennis Channel. “I was like, OK, no pressure.

“I don’t know what he’s doing here now. He should be resting.”

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Women | Men | Broadcast Schedule

Svitolina made at least one major quarterfinal every year from 2017 through 2021, including the semifinals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2019. She married Monfils one week before the Tokyo Olympics, then won a singles bronze medal.

Svitolina played her last match before maternity leave on March 24, 2022, one month after Russia invaded her country. She gave birth to daughter Skai on Oct. 15.

Svitolina returned to competition in April. Last week, she won the tournament preceding the French Open, sweeping Blinkova to improve to 17-3 in her career in finals. She’s playing on a protected ranking of 27th after her year absence and, now, on a seven-match win streak.

“It was always in my head the plan to come back, but I didn’t put any pressure on myself, because obviously with the war going on, with the pregnancy, you never know how complicated it will go,” she said. “I’m as strong as I was before, maybe even stronger, because I feel that I can handle the work that I do off the court, and match by match I’m getting better. Also mentally, because mental can influence your physicality, as well.”

Svitolina said she’s motivated by goals to attain before she retires from the sport and to help Ukraine, such as donating her prize money from last week’s title in Strasbourg.

“These moments bring joy to people of Ukraine, to the kids as well, the kids who loved to play tennis before the war, and now maybe they don’t have the opportunity,” she said. “But these moments that can motivate them to look on the bright side and see these good moments and enjoy themselves as much as they can in this horrible situation.”

Svitolina was born in Odesa and has lived in Kharkiv, two cities that have been attacked by Russia.

“I talk a lot with my friends, with my family back in Ukraine, and it’s a horrible thing, but they are used to it now,” she said. “They are used to the alarms that are on. As soon as they hear something, they go to the bomb shelters. Sleepless nights. You know, it’s a terrible thing, but they tell me that now it’s a part of their life, which is very, very sad.”

Svitolina noted that she plays with a flag next to her name — unlike the Russians and Belarusians, who are allowed to play as neutral athletes.

“When I step on the court, I just try to think about the fighting spirit that all of us Ukrainians have and how Ukrainians are fighting for their values, for their freedom in Ukraine,” she said, “and me, I’m fighting here on my own front line.”

Svitolina said that she’s noticed “a lot of rubbish” concerning how tennis is reacting to the war.

“We have to focus on what the main point of what is going on,” she said. “Ukrainian people need help and need support. We are focusing on so many things like empty words, empty things that are not helping the situation, not helping anything.

“I want to invite everyone to focus on helping Ukrainians. That’s the main point of this, to help kids, to help women who lost their husbands because they are at the war, and they are fighting for Ukraine.

“You can donate. Couple of dollars might help and save lives. Or donate your time to something to help people.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Marcell Jacobs still sidelined, misses another race with Fred Kerley

Marcell Jacobs

Olympic 100m champion Marcell Jacobs of Italy will miss another scheduled clash with world 100m champion Fred Kerley, withdrawing from Friday’s Diamond League meet in Florence.

Jacobs, 28, has not recovered from the nerve pain that forced him out of last Sunday’s Diamond League meet in Rabat, Morocco, according to Italy’s track and field federation.

In his absence, Kerley’s top competition will be fellow American Trayvon Bromell, the world bronze medalist, and Kenyan Ferdinand Omanyala, the world’s fastest man this year at 9.84 seconds. Kerley beat both of them in Rabat.

The Florence Diamond League airs live on Peacock on Friday from 2-4 p.m. ET.

Jacobs has withdrawn from six scheduled head-to-heads with Kerley dating to May 2022 due to a series of health issues since that surprise gold in Tokyo.

Kerley, primarily a 400m sprinter until the Tokyo Olympic year, became the world’s fastest man in Jacobs’ absence. He ran a personal best 9.76 seconds, the world’s best time of 2022, at last June’s USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships. Then he led a U.S. sweep of the medals at July’s worlds.

Jacobs’ next scheduled race is a 100m at the Paris Diamond League on June 9. Kerley is not in that field, but world 200m champion Noah Lyles is.

The last time the reigning Olympic and world men’s 100m champions met in a 100m was the 2012 London Olympic final between Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake. From 2013 to 2017, Bolt held both titles, then retired in 2017 while remaining reigning Olympic champion until Jacobs’ win in Tokyo, where Kerley took silver.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!