A Journey of the Underdog

Qualifying for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games.

It wasn’t easy. It was a long and arduous process. An achievement that took years in the making.

There were coaching changes, relocations, and culture adjustments. Countless interruptions and roadblocks. There were doubters and non-believers.

But through it all emerged a core group. A team that bought in – that believed – that fought and showed the world what they could achieve. It was a journey of the underdog.


After countless practices, friendlies and matches, the U.S. Women’s National Team finally had their first chance of qualifying for the Olympic Games this past October. The Pan American Games, hosted in Santiago, Chile, was an important event. One with three possible outcomes: outright winning the tournament to lock down Olympic qualification, finishing in one of the next three spots to secure a spot at an Olympic Qualifier, or going home empty handed.

With a lot on the line, the squad knew what was at stake. Their mentality was to take each game one at a time. Don’t think too far ahead and concentrate on the task at hand.

“Going into the Pan American Games, we always had the direct Olympic qualification in the back of our minds,” commented Ally Hammel. “Previously, we had seen a qualification to the most recent World Cup slip from our fingers. Following the loss of qualification, we had time to process and fine-tune our preparation. We knew our standard was either direct qualification or a spot at an Olympic Qualifier. We felt no other outcome was acceptable for us.”

The match where they could check one box came against Uruguay in their final pool game. Against a team that has been improving significantly, the United Eagles confirmed a 3-0 win behind a strong second quarter. This meant they secured a spot in an Olympic Qualifier.

With the victory, they earned a place in the semifinals against host, Chile. A game they knew would be challenging, not just because of their opponent but also the trial of a home stadium.

“The stadium was so loud we could barely communicate with each other,” added Karlie Kisha. “We actually switched our game plan because of the noise. Throughout and specifically this game we started to rely on our culture. Being disciplined, staying relentless and finding joy in the process.”

The semifinal was a tight contest. USA took a first quarter lead, but Chile found the equalizer early in the fourth. Neither team could break the deadlock in the remaining time to force it to a shootout. The United Eagles came out on top, 3-1, in four rounds and advanced to the gold medal game – one step closer.


The final against Argentina was a 60-minute battle until the very end. Las Leonas struck first and USA responded on a penalty stroke just before the half. Tensions rose as Argentina pulled ahead midway through the fourth. The United Eagles fought with a late push in the closing minutes, but they fell short, 2-1.

Although they narrowly missed the opportunity to secure Olympic qualification right there, not all was lost. “At that point in time, it was tough because we wanted to qualify at the Pan American Games so badly,” said Meredith Sholder. “However, realizing that we were capable of competing against a top ranked opponent, such as Argentina, gave us the confidence we needed to go back to training and continue to work hard and prepare for the Qualifier.”

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    Ally Hammel

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    Karlie Kisha

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    Meredith Sholder

The Pan American Games final performance gave the team the extra confidence they needed. The culture continued to evolve, and as Hammel put it, “this was a make-or-break moment for us. It felt like the pieces of the puzzle had started to come together but we needed to figure out where each piece fit to create the full picture and find the success we had been searching for.”

Just two days after the conclusion of the Pan American Games, the FIH Hockey Olympic Qualifier pools and locations were released. The No. 15 USWNT was heading to Ranchi, India along with No. 5 Germany, No. 6 India, No. 9 New Zealand, No. 11 Japan, No. 12 Chile, No. 19 Italy and No. 25 Czech Republic. They were the sixth ranked team out of the eight at their Qualifier, and only the top three finishers qualified for the Olympics. The odds didn’t look good. Large sighs also came when they found out they were set to face hosts, India, in their pool opener – a déjà vu moment from back in 2019.

“It was never a secret to us that, based on ranking, we were identified as the underdog,” said Hammel. “We recognized that as the underdog, we had absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain.”

“We reminded each other that there was no pressure on us and instead all was on the higher ranked opponent. Reframing the situation gave us the freedom to perform in difficult, high pressure moments.”

The United Eagles went back to their original mentality - take each game one at a time. They were prepared and ready to prove the world wrong. It was their last chance.

Their first opponent, India, was going to be tough. Not only because of their playing capabilities but the added element of the home atmosphere and thousands of fans. But they prepared – they did their homework.

“We practiced this situation beforehand in our sports psychology meetings, using mindfulness to help channel our nerves into excitement and appreciation,” commented Sholder. “That way, instead of allowing the atmosphere to get into our heads, we used it to our advantage to fuel our energy on the field, and we were able to thrive off of that energy.”

USA relied heavily on a strong defensive structure. They absorbed the circle penetrations and shots and capitalized when it mattered most for a close 1-0 victory. They defended with an immense amount of discipline and used relentlessness to put their opponent under pressure. With the opening win, they were now one step closer to their goal.

Then they faced Italy, an unfamiliar opponent. After a scoreless first quarter, USA continued their self-belief and tallied in both the second and fourth periods for a 2-0 win.


Next up was their final pool game against higher ranked New Zealand. It was another extremely important match, with a spot in the semifinals on the line. USA tallied early and held on for a 1-0 shutout, again behind a great defensive performance.

Three games down with three wins and zero goals conceded. USA was soaring and the excitement was building.

“Our self-belief was through the roof,” recalled Kisha. “A lot of us kept saying ‘we just can’t see it happening any other way’, meaning that we were going to win the semifinal and punch our ticket to Paris. To have that much confidence, trust in ourselves and discipline in our game plan we knew we could do it.”

The team prepared for the next task at hand. It wasn’t a must-win, but a winning result would put them in the best possible situation. Win this match, and USA is going to the Olympic Games.

The semifinal against Japan was tight. Scoreless at halftime, Japan tallied in the 38th minute to take the lead. USA didn’t panic and knew they had time to respond, but the clock kept ticking.

“We knew there were two reactions we could have had: either let it get to us, get frustrated, go internal, turn chaotic, and end up losing; or have that unwavering belief, support one another, stick to our game plan, and continue to do our jobs relentlessly in order to come back,” added Sholder.

With 8 minutes remaining in the game USA answered on a penalty corner. Two minutes following, with an athlete-up advantage, they found the go-ahead goal off another set piece. In the final minutes, the clock ticked down in what seemed like slow motion, but eventually the final horn sounded. They had done it. USA successfully produced the from-behind 2-1 victory to seal their ticket to the Olympic Games.

“We knew in our hearts that we had the ability to accomplish great things, but it was always about proving it to ourselves and doing it together,” stated Hammel. Each person in this group has been through moments of adversity, where we felt like we wanted to hang up our sticks. To be able to fight together and overcome is why we play this amazing sport.”


“To see all of our hard work, dedication, time and effort being paid off in one moment was something so special,” added Kisha. “I have been on the team for over four years but the emotions from our journey go way beyond these years.”

These underdogs proved people wrong. They fully believed when many didn’t and showed the world they could. It goes to show that when you commit to the process, sacrifice, and fully share in a dream – anything is possible. Here’s to the next stage.


Read more about the United Eagles' journey to the Paris 2024 Olympic Games, including features stories, Olympian profiles, exclusive merchandise and more on the Fly As One page.