- - Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A teammate once said Centreville High School grad Claire Laubach’s drag flick brought tears to the eyes of the best field hockey goalies in the world. It’s a weapon that has allowed the U.S. women’s national team to become a legitimate contender for an Olympic medal in 2012 after placing eighth in 2008.

And her coach says she’s not even half as good at the shot, which comes off a penalty corner, as she will be six months from now when the team is in its final preparations for London.

With appearances in more than 100 international games, Laubach is one of the most experienced and respected players on the national team - which earned a berth at the 2012 Olympic Games with a victory over Argentina in the final of the Pan Am Games in late October (its first against the regional rivals since a pre-Olympic game in 2008). And when she was only in her fifth year of playing field hockey, as a sophomore at Wake Forest, Laubach earned the first of three NCAA Division I national championships.

Based on that, it sounds as if her career, which only began after making the Centreville varsity team as a novice 10th grader (her soccer coach urged her to try out), has been nothing but smooth sailing.

“I just have always been very successful,” Laubach, 28, said without a hint of arrogance while discussing her athletic career on a crisp late fall day at a coffee shop just down the road from where she roamed the fields for the Wildcats. “For a long time, I did all the steps that needed to be taken. When I was in high school, it was about getting into college. And then that happened. I got into college and won three national championships. Then when I made the [national] team (just after college), that was awesome.”

But in spite of all those accolades and all-star games, her career came to a screeching halt when she was left off the 2008 Olympic roster and relegated to watching her teammates play from a studio in Connecticut while she offered commentary on the tournament for NBC. When the squad returned from China, Laubach was dealt another blow: she was demoted from the national team and placed on the lower-tier development team.

“I actually got an email about it. That’s how I found out,” Laubach said.

Lee Bodimeade, an Australian Olympian who took over the USA women’s team in 2005, said he felt like Laubach, obviously a gifted athlete, needed a jolt to tap into all of her potential.

It was the first time that just going to practice, playing indoor and outdoor seasons and doing the prescribed offseason workouts wasn’t enough. Laubach said she realized making the national team was a huge honor, and she needed to constantly prove herself to her coaches and teammates.

When you’ve been going to practice all your life, it’s hard to stop. So even though her funding was cut, and she had to get a job at a bagel shop near the team’s training facility in San Diego and pick up a few more assignments as a high school ref in order to pay the rent, Laubach kept showing up at practice.

“You can’t just give up when you’ve been knocked down once,” she said.

When she wasn’t at work or practice, Laubach mulled over her career options while going on long runs in Balboa Park.

“[Then] something clicked,” she said. “It was time to go.”

Instead of just playing tenacious defense, which had been her hallmark since she first picked up the stick in 1998, Laubach learned a skill that made her indispensable to the U.S team.

She developed the drag flick through an obsessive year of practice, often alone at the national team’s facility. In field hockey, the drag flick is the only legal shot on goal allowed to go higher than 18 inches. It’s similar to a wrist shot in ice hockey, where a player traps the ball against the ground with the curved head of the stick, pushes the ball to gather momentum towards the goal, and flings the ball, airborne, hopefully past the goalie and into the net.

“Since not a lot of people came back after the Olympics, I got a lot of one-on-one time with my coach to develop it and the time to work on it and really figure it out,” Laubach said.

Steve Jennings, the American University coach and a 1996 Olympian, says no international team can hope to win an Olympic medal without a proficient drag-flicker.

“None of those top teams could survive without someone who has a very powerful drag flick,” said Jennings. “She has been able to put a threat into the penalty corner.”

Laubach compares herself to Abby Wambach of U.S. soccer fame, due to her role as the primary target off corner kicks. Others felt as if the comparison to a football placekicker was more appropriate.

“It’s like a spiker in volleyball,” said Bodimeade, who won a silver medal with the Australian men’s team in 1992. “Someone who finishes off the points.”

Lauren Crandall, who has known Laubach since they were teammates for two seasons at Wake Forest, said a dangerous drag-flicker opens up other opportunities to score off a penalty corner.

“If she flicks one in, now they’re worried about that, and it opens up the rest of the circle for us to run plays we can score off,” said Crandall.

But a few strong drag flicks doesn’t make a career. Bodimeade insists Laubach wouldn’t be a member of the team if she hadn’t worked on her whole game.

“The competitiveness came forward,” he said. “It’s not just adding the drag flick. The drag flick is the big bonus to us, but her game has overall developed significantly since ‘08.”

She debuted the skill during a U.S. series against world power Argentina in Nov. 2009 and was so successful, scoring four times in five games, a teammate told her: “you just made a goalie cry.”

Jennings says Laubach’s story should serve as inspiration for any athlete who might be dealing with adversity.

“Most young people need to hear that story over and over again,” he said. “You’re not going to get everything the first time.”

For a video showing Laubach practicing her drag flick, go to https://bit.ly/laubach

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