Rockland's Pucci Prepares to Realize Olympic Dream
Josephine Pucci, 23, of Pearl River will be one of seven defensemen on Team USA in the Winter Olympic Games next month in Sochi, Russia.
"When I was five, he found Sport-O-Rama," Pucci said of her father, Victor. "I remember the day. He was so excited. He showed us the rink. We were walking around. That Christmas, he bought me some equipment. That week, I was on the ice. We also tried figure skating to learn to skate."
That moment helped lead to another major milestone in her life, the day in late December that she found out she had made the U.S. Olympic Women's Ice Hockey team and would be making the trip to compete in the 2014 Olympic Games.in Sochi, Russia.
"Obviously, it's an incredible feeling," Pucci said. "It's something, for any girl who plays ice hockey, it's the highest level you can get to. It's always something you think about once in a while, your dream or your goal. Over the last three or four years, everything has led up to this."
Pucci came home to Pearl River for the holidays with instructions to keep the news quiet until USA Hockey officially announced the Olympic hockey teams during the NHL's Winter Classic New Year's Day. She was far more interested in enjoying the lifting of the pressure she had been facing for months to worry about spreading secrets.
Pucci, who sat out the 2012-13 school year at Harvard University as she recovered from a concussion, took a second year off to spend it preparing for the Olympics even though she did not know for sure if she would make the team. A group of 25 candidates played and practiced together for months knowing that only 21 of them would make the final cut.
"I've been working so hard the last three or four months," Pucci said. "There were 25 of us and we knew the roster would be cut down to 21. After they named the roster, we were able to go home for Christmas. It was so nice to finally just sit back and relax. Spend some time with my family. I was just so happy and proud. Then I go to go home. It was nice to relax.
"It was tell the people you trust, but keep it quiet. I told the people who played a big role in helping me to this point."
The support is nothing new for Pucci, who said she still remains close with many of the classmates she graduated with from the St. Margaret School in Pearl River even as she went on to Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingfrord, CT and then Harvard. She still has connections with former teammates in youth softball and soccer.
"Obviously, I owe so much to Pearl River, just in general," Pucci said. "I feel an attachment. My parents are still there. I go home every weekend. I feel so grateful for everything at St. Margaret's. I am still in touch with my buddies at home, Friends from Kindergarten through eighth grade. It is such a close-knit, tight community at school. After they announced (the Olympic roster) publicly, all the support I got from kids in school was amazing."
She also had the support of her family along the way, including parents Victor and Ursula and two younger sisters, Samantha and Victoria. Her parents and Victoria (Samantha had a commitment at college) represented the family when Orangetown honored Josephine during the town board meeting Jan. 7.
"My parents have done everything they could to put us in the best position to do what we enjoy and give us as much opportunity as possible," Pucci said. "I think going away at 14 to prep school, that was hard on my parents. At first, I felt almost guilty going. I"m the oldest. I felt bad leaving my sisters. It meant the world to me to have their full support. To tell me, 'You can do this. You will do well there. This will open so many doors for you.'
"My sisters, they give the best advice in the world. Their support means everything to me."
Pucci needed that support when she faced the first major injury of her athletic career, a concussion due to a hit in a game Aug. 19, 2012. Not only could she not practice and play with the U.S. National team or her college squad, she also found herself unable to continue in class. Symptoms of the concussion were troubling her during class and when she tried to read.
"I realized what's most important in my life," Pucci said. "Hockey is a big part of my life, but not who I am. Taking time away, I realized what makes me happy are the people in my life, just being surrounded by loved ones. It's so important to have such a great support system. At the end of the day, that's what makes you happy."
Pucci went on to get treatment with Dr. Ted Carrick at the Carrick Brain Center in Atlanta. He is best known for his work with NHL star Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins. She took a patient approach to her recovery, waiting well into 2013 before returning to hockey. Tryouts were in June.
"It was the smart to take the season off. Concussions, the more time you take off, the less likely you are to get another one," Pucci said. "You need time to fully recover.I was in Pearl River from September to the end of January, then I was back in Boston (where the U.S. National team has been training) in February. That's where the resources were. That's when I started to exercise again.
"It wasn't until the end of March that I was feeling I'm ready to go. By the beginning of April, I was feeling I'm 100 percent. I feel totally normal. I feel myself. I feel confident on the ice. I feel confident off the ice. I can read. I can do everything."
From there it was a matter of getting past any nervousness about another injury and bringing her game back to a level that could put her in the Olympics. She made the decision to take a second full year off from Harvard. The first was a medical waiver. This time it is an Olympic waiver. She plans to return this fall to Harvard, where she is a psychology major.
There is still a Harvard connection now, one that is a help to Pucci. Harvard's Head Coach, Katey Stone, is also taking this year away from the program because she is the head coach for Team USA.
"I know her style," Pucci said. "I know what she's expecting. I know she will be very demanding. I have built a relationship with her over the years. I think that's a good thing. I respect her a lot as a coach. She knows the game and she's never going to take a day off. She expects the most of herself and her players."
Pucci also has experience playing for the U.S. National team, going back to the U-22 squad the summer after her freshman year at Harvard. he said she just played for the enjoyment of the game early on and the goal of the Olympics came later and it didn't seem to be in reach until she made the U-22 team.
"I felt like this could be my only chance to show what I can do and I need to take advantage," Pucci said. "I need to take advantage. Fortunately, everything went well and I made the senior national team two months later. Since then, I've been fortunate to continue getting invites. I've competed in every tournament besides those I missed (with the concussion)."
She spoke about her first experience with the national team, taking the ice with many of the players who had competed in the 2010 Olympics.
"It was unbelievable," Pucci said. "I was surrounded by Olympians. I was one of the younger kids at that point. I was on a penalty kill and everyone on the ice was an Olympian except me. I thought I'm here right now. I just need to take advantage of it and play the way I know how."
Pucci said that the goal is hockey, but part of making the trip a success is taking time to enjoy the entire Olympic experience. She said she has learned that it is important to remember to enjoy the game and everything around it.
"It's still so much fun," Pucci said. "You have to be prepared, but the whole experience is so much fun. I love ice hockey. I love being part of a team, being able to travel. I can't even explain how excited I am just to be in the village and take in the whole experience. At the end of the day, the most important thing is to be ready to execute when it matters, but that doesn't mean you can't have fun. When you are having fun, you are more likely to do well."
Doing well for this team is chasing the gold medal, which has been the goal for USA Hockey since the end of the 2010 games. The U-22 players received t-shirts that read "Road to Sochi" in 2010.
"Right from the start, our goal has been to win the gold medal," Pucci said. "The last U.S. team to win it was 1998. The last three Olympics, the Canadians won it. Right when this quad started, which is what they call it from when the Vancouver Olympics ended to when the Sochi Olympics start, that's when Coach Stone took the reins."
Team USA will open the hockey tournament Feb. 8 against Finland, with Pucci taking to the ice as one of the team's seven defensemen. She said that process of practicing and playing for months waiting to see who would be on the final 21-player roster helped prepare her for the pressure of the games.
"That whole process really puts the pressure on," Pucci said. "If you are going to compete for a gold medal in Sochi, that is something you have to overcome. Knowing people will be cut puts the pressure on. It gave us the opportunity to perform under pressure."
Just one more step on the road from first stepping onto the ice at Sport-O-Rama to taking the Olympic stage next month.