Team USA's Gina Oliver: There and Back Again
|After seeing her former team in
2011, Gina Oliver decided to return to Team USA.
© Dean Beattie
A version of this article appears in the June 2012 issue of Lacrosse Magazine, the flagship publication of US Lacrosse. Don't get the mag? Join US Lacrosse and its 400,000-plus members today to start your subscription.
Gina Oliver decided to quit while she was ahead. The All-World women's lacrosse defender had won gold with Team USA at the 2009 FIL Women's World Cup. Physically and mentally exhausted by the five-year journey between her first national team tryout and her first international medal, Oliver figured it was better to free up a roster spot for someone younger and hungrier.
"I don't want to just do it and take the opportunity away from someone who's really working at it like I did," she said. "If this is right for me, if I leave it and miss it, I can come back."
After the 2009 World Cup, Oliver returned to Pittsburgh, where she is an assistant coach at Duquesne University, and indulged in her favorite post-Team USA recovery ritual — a two-hour massage. She worked out less, concentrated on coaching and enjoyed the break from playing.
But 18 months later, sitting on the couch and watching Team USA in the 2011 Champion Challenge on ESPN, the urge to play came back. Watching her teammates on TV felt weird."I've been a part of a team, and competition, for so long that I missed it," Oliver said. "I had that itch. I'm not done yet. I still want to play."
Thus Oliver came back to the team in the summer 2011 and made the cut again. She returned to international competition last July, and will be suiting up once again this month in Oshawa Ontario for the FIL World Cup.. Any steps she lost she regained by training on her own and with Duquesne's strength and conditioning coach.
Plus, she now has what might politely be called the benefit of experience. Oliver, 29, describes her veteran status more bluntly.
"As a coach, I wish I knew then what I know now. I see the game in a totally different light, especially now that I'm an old hag and I can't move as well," she said.
A Reluctant Star Earns Her Stripes
Oliver has always had an on-again-off-again relationship with the national team. Mike Scerbo, once an assistant at Ohio State and now the head coach at Duquesne, had to talk her into trying out when she was a breakout player for the Buckeyes, winning American Lacrosse Conference Rookie of the Year in 2002 and Player of the Year in 2003. She went to her first national team tryout in summer 2004 as a ride-along with former Ohio State career goals leader Megan Mirick.
"I told her, 'Just go along with Megan. Worst-case scenario, you play in a great tournament and maybe learn something," Scerbo said.
Oliver was cut from the team.
"I was really, really mad," she said. "That was the first time I was told I wasn't good enough."
But the tryout experience sparked something in Oliver. After the final cut, she got a note from Sue Heether, then the Team USA team goalie and later head coach of the 2009 squad, telling her she had exceptional talent and should continue pursuing a chance to play for Team USA.
"It started to become her goal, something that she wanted rather than something that I wanted for her," Scerbo said. "She has that unbelievable desire to win. She was blessed to be a very gifted young lady athletically — speed, strength, quickness — but what sets her apart from her peers is she is the epitome of a competitor. You can play checkers with her and she'll want to play until she wins. We play PIG on the basketball court and she gets mad at me if I even come close to beating her."
Oliver first made the cut for Team USA in 2006, still ambivalent about the long commitment required to make a World Cup roster and win a world title. She graduated from college as Ohio State's all-time leader in ground balls (236) and caused turnovers (201), ranked second in draw controls and third in career points (166), but she was not yet sure she wanted to make a career of lacrosse. Sue Stimmel, then head coach of the Buckeyes, encouraged her to stick it out for loftier reasons.
"The typical lacrosse player comes from middle class or upper middle class and has it pretty good. Gina is not your typical lacrosse player," said Stimmel, now the head coach at Upper Arlington (Ohio) High.
Oliver grew up in Pottstown, Pa., a place she describes as "a little rinky-dink town." Her father died when she was in sixth grade, and her mother struggled with substance abuse. In high school, she bounced between a network of aunts and other relatives. Stimmel had a string of different phone numbers to try when contacting Oliver during the recruiting process.
Stimmel discovered Oliver by chance when she caught a Pottstown (Pa.) High game during a trip home to southeastern Pennsylvania. When she saw Oliver tearing up the field, she got mad at herself for missing such a talent. How had someone so good slipped through the fingers of the dozens of college lacrosse coaches combing the area for prospects?
When she spoke to Trojans head coach Andy Bachman, she was
stunned to discover the reason.
Oliver, the most dominant player on the field, was just a sophomore.
"She was a field general. She was the one calling plays, directing traffic, telling people where to go and what to do," Bachman said. "She was one of the reasons why — not just for the years she was here, but after she left — we had such a strong team. It was her presence in the locker room and on the sidelines."
Bachman recruited Oliver to play for Pottstown and paid her way to play in the 2000 US Lacrosse Women's Division National Tournament. She played for Upper Atlantic 3, which won the championship, becoming the lowest-seeded team to ever earn the Valerie Walchak Trophy. Even if Oliver did not know she was destined for greatness, others did. At the 2000 WDNT, Sue Stahl, then head coach of the women's national team and at Old Dominion, told Bachman that if Oliver stayed healthy, she was a lock for Team USA someday.
'It's Not About Me'
Stimmel didn't want to see Oliver turn away from that opportunity, so when they were both home for Christmas in 2006, Stimmel arranged a lunch with Hall of Famer Tina Sloan Green. Sloan Green was the first black NCAA women's lacrosse coach and won national championships in 1982 and 1984 at Temple. Stimmel was a goalie on both teams.
"I loved it because she's big on the bigger picture," Oliver said.
Sloan Green impressed upon Oliver the importance of giving young black girls a role model in women's lacrosse. Oliver treasured her memory of playing with Cherie Greer during her first Team USA tryout and thought about the larger implications of her lacrosse career.
"Tina's all about getting more African-Americans into lacrosse. My story and my journey would impact a girl somewhere out there — whether it inspired her to try lacrosse or another sport — and do something with her life outside the usual things in the city," Oliver said. "Or it might be for a Caucasian girl in Arizona who picked up the sport later and really sucked at first, but made it. That humbled me. It's not about me."
Oliver has five nieces and three nephews. As it turns out, the fiercest defender in the world is a big softy when it comes to little kids. If she were not coaching, she said, she would run a daycare center.
"If you ever see her work a camp, she has every single kid in love with her at the end of it," said Team USA goalie Devon Wills.
Oliver's nieces, nephews and godchildren were too young to appreciate her 2009 achievements. But now they are old enough to understand, and the 2013 FIL World Cup will be in Canada, close enough for them to travel to the games if she makes the team. She plans to do so.
"That was my motivation that I can do this," Oliver said. "I can have my nieces and nephews sitting at a World Cup game and seeing their aunt play with a U.S. jersey on."