Katie O’Donnell toughened by rejection, Navy SEAL workouts

Ask Katie O'Donnell about the Navy SEALs and her eyes light up.

Back in April, O'Donnell was wet. Sandy. Cold. Tired.

“You’re sitting there in so much pain,” O'Donnell said, “you’re almost on the verge of tears.”

The former University of Maryland field hockey standout’s path to the London Olympics wound through a painful rejection and four equally painful training sessions with the SEALs in the last year that left her, yes, smiling.

Four years ago, O'Donnell, a skilled, competitive forward who says she’s at her best when she doesn’t think, worried. As she trained for the Beijing Olympics after her freshman season at Maryland, fear of making mistakes consumed O'Donnell. Mistakes she actually made stuck in her mind.

So, she found herself at a table facing Lee Bodimeade, coach since 2005, saying she wasn’t on the team. At that moment, the worry disappeared and O'Donnell realized letting go of the feeling a bit earlier would be helpful.

That moment transformed O'Donnell’s approach for London. The youngest player to make the U.S. national team at 16 and 2010 National Sportswoman of the Year, O'Donnell ditched the overthinking. It’s like the team’s hacky sack circle before each game, where reflex, not thought, guides movements to keep the hacky sack from touching the ground.

“Her growth from that point on … really stems from that disappointment,” said Maryland field hockey coach Missy Meharg, who will provide color commentary for NBC’s Olympic field hockey broadcasts. “She finds a way to dig deeper then what you think is possible.”

After the Olympics, O'Donnell, a three-time All-American, will be a student assistant coach on Meharg’s staff while she finishes the degree — recently changed to family science — she put on hold to pursue the Olympics.

In London, the U.S., owner of just one medal since the sport joined the Olympics in boycott-marred 1984, resides in the difficult Group B, with world champion Argentina and previous Olympic medalists Germany and Australia. But Bodimeade’s group embodies the attitude O'Donnell adopted to recover from the Beijing heartbreak.

“If I make a mistake,” O'Donnell said, “it’s just that. I forget about it. Trash it. … Flush it down the toilet and get going. Next ball.”

O'Donnell stands 5-foot-2. Other players are bigger or stronger. But her speed, her love of swiping the ball from a defender, her uncanny ability to be a quarterback on the field and see options before they open up, her tenacity set her apart.

That tenacity was tested in April, when the team rose at 4 a.m. for six hours of training by SEALs. Push-ups started at 5:01 a.m.

The log was the worst. Each 250-pound log had eight women assigned to heft it for 100 meters in one exercise, 400 meters in the next. A heavier log was the punishment for dropping it. So, for O'Donnell, surrendering wasn’t an option.

It made the usual week’s workouts — 40 to 90 minutes of running six days each week on top of multiple practices and weight-lifting sessions every day but Saturday and Sunday — seem mild.

By the end of the training, O'Donnell was sore and covered with scrapes.

“You have to push through,” she said. “We’re a bunch of fighters. We’ve shown we can get through everything.”

And O'Donnell hadn’t given up.

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