By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Her flight was booked, her tickets for the Olympic Games purchased. But until last week, UVa field hockey coach Michele Madison wasn’t sure she’d be cheering for any of her players in London this summer.
“So our fingers were crossed,” Madison recalled. “Friday was a nerve-wracking day.”
Before it ended, though, June 8 brought wonderful news for Madison, for her program and, above all, for Paige Selenski and Michelle Vittese.
Selenski and Vittese, who will return to the University as fifth-year seniors in 2012-13, were chosen for the U.S. team that will compete in the Olympic Games. They are the first current or former UVa players to be so honored in field hockey.
Vittese, who last week was named U.S. player of the year by USA Field Hockey, was confident both Cavaliers would be selected for the Olympic team. Still, Vittese admitted, she couldn’t be sure until she and Selenski were officially notified June 8 at the University of Maryland.
“It would have been slightly bittersweet if one of us had made it and the other one didn’t,” Vittese said on a teleconference Tuesday.
Selenski agreed. Had only Vittese been chosen, Selenski said, “I would have been very excited for Michelle, but at the same time I obviously want to be there with her. We’re both really excited that we get to experience everything together now.”
Next up for the soon-to-be Olympians is a homecoming of sorts. At 8 p.m. Monday, at the University Hall Turf Field, Team USA will face Argentina, a world power, in the opener of a four-game test series. There is no charge for admission or parking Monday.
“It’s basically an Olympic preview,” Madison said. “We’re paying over $100 a ticket to go see them play in London, and here [fans] can come see them play for free.”
In the summer of 2011, a blue surface replaced the green one at the U-Hall Turf Field. The blue surface is similar to what teams will compete on in London, and this will be the first game on it for Vittese and Selenski, who helped the United States capture the gold medal at the Pan American Games in Mexico last fall.
That’s not the only reason Vittese is pumped about Monday night’s game. “This will be the first time my parents have seen me play with the national team,” she said. “They’ve watched games on-line, but unfortunately they weren’t able to make the Pan Am Games. They’ve been putting all their marbles in one bag, hoping for London.”
Selenski, a three-time All-American, ranks third in career points (171) and career goals (73) at UVa. Vittese, whose sister Carissa is a rising junior on the team at UVa, is a two-time All-American who has totaled 51 points during her college career.
Vittese and Selenski, members of the U.S. national team since 2010, helped Virginia reach the NCAA semifinals that fall. They remained students at UVa in the spring of 2011, but their national-team commitments took them out of school “for 10 days here and 10 days there,” Madison said, “and it wreaked havoc on their academics, No. 1, and it also wreaked havoc when they come back into [UVa’s] practice, even though we were just in spring training. There’s no time for anyone to adjust.”
And so when, as expected, Selenski and Vittese decided to withdraw from UVa for the 2011-12 academic year to try to make it to London, they did so with their coach’s blessing.
“That’s what Paige and Michelle needed to take their game to the next level,” Madison said.
Their international careers took off. Back in Charlottesville, though, the Wahoos stumbled without their two best players. Virginia finished 8-12 last season and, for the first time since 2005, failed to earn an invitation to the NCAA tournament.
“We knew it would be difficult [without Selenski and Vittese],” Madison said, “but we didn’t exactly know how difficult it was going to be. So I think the early-season out-of-conference losses just created frustration. So it went from high expectations to frustration, and then trying to find who we were as a team, and we started to do that at the end.”
It was difficult for her to watch her teammates struggle, especially her classmates, Selenski said. “I don’t think they felt abandoned, but it’s tough for them. They understand it was a tough situation for us. They were all really supportive of it, but it’s tough to leave them in their senior year, when obviously we could have been really good last year.
“It was tough, but the whole team, I think, was pretty understanding. They understand what we’re going through and that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Madison expects to welcome back 22 players with college experience this summer, the most in her seven seasons as UVa’s coach. Vittese and Selenski will miss part of preseason practice, but they’ll fly home from London about a week before Virginia’s Aug. 21 exhibition game with the U.S. under-21 national team.
“I’m sure [Madison] will give us a week or maybe more off to, I guess, sort of unwind and really put things back into perspective,” Vittese said. “It’s not time to celebrate. It’s time to actually buckle down even more for the next four months. We have a really great program, with really great recruits coming in, and of course we’re back. It’ll be really fun.”
They’ll return to UVa as much-improved players, Madison said.
Selenski “has had to learn, instead of outrunning people, to use changes of speed and changes of direction, because everybody’s fast [at the international level],” said Madison, an assistant coach on the U.S. Olympic team in 1988 and again in ’96. “She still has the quickest first three steps, but she had to learn how to set that up to use it instead of just outrunning people.”
Vittese, who’s from Cherry Hill, N.J., was “never a fitness person,” Madison said. “To her, three miles was a long distance. Now three miles to her is nothing.”
Apprised of Madison’s comments, Vittese laughed. “Bless her soul,” she said. But then Vittese acknowledged that Madison was correct.
“I was not big on fitness,” Vittese said. “I was probably the least fit person on the team [at UVa]. I didn’t think it mattered. This sounds awful, but sometimes you can get away with that, being in college, especially if you’re a pretty skilled player.
“You realize very quickly that the pace of the [international] game is so high that your fitness has to be top-notch, and pretty soon you realize that fitness is your friend, and in order to beat someone at the international level — because everyone is just as good — you have to outwork them and you have to be able to outlast them.”
With Team USA, Selenski said, she’s “been doing workouts that I’ve never done [before] in my entire life being an athlete. I don’t think I’ve ever run for 90 minutes straight my whole life. I’ve never done these runs in my life, and I’ve done every sport — track, field hockey, soccer, everything. It puts you on a whole different level and gives you a whole different perspective on being at the Olympic level versus being at the college level.”
Madison is eager for Selenski and Vittese to share the knowledge they’ve acquired with the other players at UVa. “It’s only going to help the team,” Madison said.
The Olympic experiences of Selenski and Vittese should pay long-term dividends for the Cavaliers’ program too. Madison recalls an incident that occurred when Selenski, who’s from Shavertown, Pa., was in the process of choosing a college.
The coach from another school, Madison said, told Selenski’s father that if his daughter picked UVa, she would never be an Olympian.
“They can’t say that any more, basically,” Madison said. “We’ve proven that we can train them and prepare them for the next level of hockey.”