- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 6, 2012

All Olympic hopefuls face their fair share of challenges. Keli Smith-Puzo’s also happen to be her life’s greatest blessings.

A mother of two, Smith-Puzo has twice put her international field hockey career on hold since competing in the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Now nine months removed from the birth of her youngest son, the 33-year-old is looking to earn one of 16 spots on the U.S. Olympic roster and book a ticket to London.

Having children often can derail an athlete’s career. But for this 10-year national team veteran and University of Maryland alum, Ian and 2 1/2-year-old Xavi have had the opposite effect.

“It’s just been a really positive thing,” Smith-Puzo said this week at the U.S. field hockey championships in College Park, which conclude Friday. “Just knowing that my husband and kids are in the stands watching I think inspires me in a way that didn’t in 2008 or previous to having a family.”

Returning from pregnancy to compete at a high level can be challenging. Doctors typically encourage female athletes to keep their heart rates and internal core temperatures low to avoid complications such as hyperthermia and oxygen deprivation. Fatigue also is common in the third trimester. Over weeks of relative inactivity, finely tuned athletic machines grow rusty.

“You just never know with your body as a woman what’s going to happen and if you’re physically going to be able to bounce back,” said Smith-Puzo, who is from Selinsgrove, Pa.

After Xavi was born in January 2010, Smith-Puzo had to start conditioning anew. She spent more time in the ice bath and training room than she spent on the field.

But with the birth of her second son last August, the mental uncertainty of returning to the national team was just as challenging as the physical training. Field hockey players usually hit their prime in their mid-to-late 20s, and anything over 30, as Smith-Puzo acknowledged, is pushing it. Just pass the ball, she thought to herself at practice. Get rid of it. I don’t want to carry this.

“Every time she would feel the pressure and be afraid that she’s not going to perform at the level that a national team player has to perform,” said her husband, Inako Puzo, who also is the field hockey coach at Miami University in Ohio.

How could a 33-year-old mom possibly keep up with a bunch of 20-somethings? And how could she possibly make a comeback to the form that allowed her to score three goals in Beijing?

“I don’t necessarily see it as a comeback,” U.S. coach Lee Bodimeade said. “I see it as her taking the time between Beijing and now to create a better life balance for her.”

Balanced certainly is one word to describe Smith-Puzo’s past couple of months. Stressful, hectic and demanding would be others.

Puzo helps take care of the kids when the family is together at its Ohio home. But when Smith-Puzo was training with the national team in Chula Vista, Calif., earlier this year, she was on her own. A crying Ian would wake her up every few hours before an alarm began her day at 5:50 a.m. She would drop the kids off at a babysitter before driving an hour through traffic to the U.S. training facility. Training typically ran from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Smith-Puzo tried to put the kids to bed by 7:30.

“When you get into parenthood, you realize that going to the grocery store becomes a challenge,” she said. “And now with our schedules always changing, we’re obviously very busy, and not just busy in one location but all around the world.”

In retrospect, Smith-Puzo said Xavi and Ian have helped her organize her life off the field and rejuvenate her career on it. Field hockey is a welcome release, an escape from the sometime sleepless nights and dirty diapers at home.

“I love being a mom, and obviously I love being with my kids, but it’s hard work,” she said. “When it comes time to play hockey, it’s so fun — it’s more enjoyable than pre-motherhood.”

Added her husband: “You see her on the field and she’s competing, running with people, you see her so focused to reach her goal. You feel so proud and happy for her.”

Xavi and Ian have never been to London, but a trip overseas may be in the cards. The 24-member U.S. team will be announced Friday and winnowed to a 16-player Olympic roster in the coming weeks. Smith-Puzo would love to return to the Olympics and help the team medal for only the second time in American field hockey history. And after shocking top-ranked Argentina in the Pan-American Games last October, Team USA believes the podium may be within reach.

But if Smith-Puzo doesn’t make the cut, she’ll happily call it a career. Her two biggest fans — and two greatest blessings — will be waiting for her at home.

“I’ve been like, ‘If I can do it, I’ll do it,’ ” she said, “but this time I can fully, confidently say that I’m ready to turn the next chapter.”

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