Erika Lawler is making her Olympic debut in Vancouver, after playing for the U.S. at the past three world championships. She first played on the national team at the 2006 Four Nations Cup and has been on the team ever since. In addition to the two world championship gold medals from 2008 and 2009, Lawler helped Wisconsin win three NCAA titles in her four seasons there.
As captain of the Badgers her senior year, Lawler led the team to the third win in four years. That season, 2008-09, Lawler led the NCAA in assists with 44. She finished her career at Wisconsin third on the school's all-time points list with 174 (55-119). Despite her success, Lawler says the best part about her college career was being able to develop, as a player and a person. "It wasn't always smooth sailing," she said. "So it was a good learning experience for me." Lawler has one year of school left, and she plans to return next year. She is majoring in sociology and hopes to stay involved in hockey, possibly as a coach.
When she was about 7, Lawler joined some friends who were learning how to skate. She had been playing street hockey already, and thought it would be fun to try ice hockey. Her father, Kevin, had played at Merrimack college, and her aunt played as well. Lawler loved it from the start, even growing up playing with boys. Her two younger brothers, Trevor and Nevin, also started playing. Trevor now plays at Fitchburg State, and Nevin at Cushing Academy.
Lawler was 11 years old when the U.S. women won gold in Nagano, but she wasn't inspired at the time. "I didn't like playing with the girls so I didn't want to watch," she said. "I was like, ‘I only want to play with the boys, I don't ever want to play with the girls.' " But by 2002, Lawler was in high school and had started playing with girls. Her coach at Cushing Academy, Paul Kennedy, was in Salt Lake City to watch his daughter, Courtney, play for the U.S. team. The girls at Cushing watched the game together. "They got the silver, so I was a little sad," she said, "but I think the coolest part was that I was really inspired to be on one of the next Olympic teams."
Stars on ice
By 2006, Lawler was on her way to joining the national team, but wasn't quite ready for the Torino Games. "I watched and it was like something I could use as a learning tool," she said, "to compare myself to the people on the team then and figure what I had to do to get there." She joined the team later that year for the Four Nations Cup. "I remember there were only a few newcomers on that team, and we were all kind of star struck out there," she said of playing with Angela Ruggiero, Natalie Darwitz, and all the other players she had been watching on TV.
Silencing the crowd
At the 2007 Worlds, the U.S. women got a taste of that it's like to play against Canada in Canada. In the gold-medal game in Winnipeg, they lost to the Canadians 5-1. "You don't want to lose in front of a crowd of 15,000 people cheering against you," Lawler said. "It opened our eyes a lot and kicked us in the butt to really focus and get prepared for the Olympics in 2010." And Lawler says it's still fun to play in front of a packed house, no matter who they are rooting for. "The best thing is being able to silence the crowd when you put the puck in the net," she said. "You can hear a pin drop when you score there."
Besides cooking and eating - "we all eat a lot," Lawler says - she loves dancing. "I just jam out in my room. It makes me happy. If I ever need to hang out, clear my mind, I'll just put on a fun tune and dance away." That goes for the locker room, too, where there is "a lot of singing and dancing with this team." In the offseason, Lawler likes to go to the beach, sit in the sun and get a tan. She spends summers back home with her family, because she only sees them rarely during the season.
As the pilot for the USA-1 bobsled, I broke a 62-year gold medal drought when my sled, the 'Night Train" won the Olympic title at the 2010 Vancouver Games. A degenerative eye condition nearly caused me to quit my sport in 2008, but corrective surgery restored my vision to 20-20.