Nicole Hensley grew up in Lakewood with a wild, wonderful, unlikely vision for her future.
She wanted to play hockey for the United States Olympic team. She wanted to wear a big gold medal around her neck. She wanted to rule the world.
And she grabbed all of it. Her unlikely vision became reality.
On Thursday afternoon, Hensley talked to a big room of supporters at the Salute to the Olympic Family Luncheon. Her gold medal – and it is big – was hanging from her neck.
“I’m getting the chance to share the victory with everyone at home,” Hensley said.
It’s a sweet victory. In 2014, America fumbled a late lead and lost in overtime to Canada in the gold-medal game. It was a bitter loss. In 2018, Canada lost a late lead and lost in overtime to America in the gold-medal game. It was gleefully magic moment, if you live in America.
Hensley is a goaltender who shut out the Russians in a preliminary game. When she was looking at college programs after graduating from Green Mountain High, she was dismissed as lacking in height and talent. She refused to relent, and finally found coaches at Lindenwood University in Saint Louis who believed in her.
She’s an example of what is best about the Olympics. I watch the gold-medal men’s basketball games every Olympic cycle, but it’s difficult to get overwhelmed with joy when a collection of NBA millionaires claims world supremacy.
The real joy in the Games is found in athletes competing in relatively – or at times flat-out – obscure sports. This is their one chance to compete on a world stage. This is a chance to grab a place in sports history.
A massive crowd of Americans watched on TV as the U.S. struggled to a hockey triumph over the Canadians. The vast majority of that crowd had never before watched women’s hockey. That’s another blessing of the Olympic movement. It allows concealed sports to escape from the shadows.
Hensley and her teammates joined an exclusive club. She owns a gold medal, same as Jesse Owens, Bobby Morrow, Michael Phelps, Wilma Rudolph, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Missy Franklin.
Yes, these are complicated, harsh times for the Olympic movement, in America and elsewhere. Russians flagrantly cheated their way to a pile of medals at the 2014 Sochi Games. Hundreds of young American Olympic hopefuls have suffered abuse in this century. The astronomical cost of hosting the Games has left economic wreckage.
It’s easy to get discouraged. It’s easy to get cynical. It’s easy to allow the dark stories to overwhelm the bright, happy ones.
But, remember, there are plenty of those bright, happy moments.
Hensley smiled as she remembered the best moment of the 2018 Games. She and her teammates watched the red, white and blue being raised, and they loudly sang the national anthem.
“We’ll walk together for the rest of our lives,” Hensley said of her teammates.
They’ll walk together while wearing those big gold medals.