A year after her collegiate hockey career at Wisconsin ended, Brianna Decker walked on the ice Friday night not wearing the cardinal and white, but the red, white and blue with the symbol of her latest accomplishment hanging from her neck.
When her career at Wisconsin ended in the WCHA Final Face-Off last March, the second leading scorer in program history and 2012 Patty Kazmaier Award winner’s hockey days were far from over. In fact, she was on the brink of entering the international stage.
In June, Decker was picked to be a member of Team USA’s women’s hockey team and represent her country at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. In August, Boston became her new home where the former Badger trained with the best women’s hockey players this country has to offer for six months.
Along with playing with three other Wisconsin alums, Decker had to share the ice with WCHA players like Minnesota’s Amanda Kessel and North Dakota’s Lamoureux sisters that she had been trying to beat for the last four years. But finding a bond with those players and the rest of the team quickly became a strength rather than an obstacle.
“Those guys were probably my favorite friends on the team,” Decker said.
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“Those guys were probably my favorite friends on the team,” Decker said. “We get along well. We all went to high school together and that might have something to do with it.
“Within the first couple of months our team chemistry came together pretty quick just because a lot of us were familiar with each other for the last three years. It was awesome. It was one thing that we had going for us.”
After months of workouts and practice, the time finally came for her trip across the world to Russia a week before the games were to start. It was then the reality of a dream coming true hit Decker.
“That’s when it really hit me, on the plane ride over there, that I’m actually going to the Olympics, competing for a gold medal.”
With a game the day after the Opening ceremony, the U.S. women’s hockey team decided to forgo the ceremony in favor of a good night’s sleep — don’t worry, they still got those sweaters. The decision would prove to be a smart one, as Team USA would beat Finland 3-1.
Decker would do her best to treat the Finland game just like any other hockey game, but the reality of playing in the Olympics added some extra emotion.
“Honestly, it was a little nerve-racking,” Decker said. “I got out of the fact that we were in the Olympics, but it was still in the back of your mind, knowing that you’re playing in front those people who are supporting countries. But, it was awesome. I’ve never felt like that before.”
Team USA’s schedule would be airtight for the next two weeks, but that didn’t mean Decker and her teammates wouldn’t have a little fun. She got to see some of the NHL’s best and attend maybe the most exciting event at the Olympics, when Team USA’s men’s hockey team beat Team Russia in a shootout.
“Being around different athletes, seeing guys like Charra, Zetterberg and Crosby, all those guys in the dining hall, pretty star struck at times, but we were one of them,” Decker said. “It was still fun to see those guys in person.”
She even got to be a part of the stray dog craze that saw several Americans adopting strays they were finding. Decker didn’t bring a dog home, but she and her roommate Kendall Coyne became acquainted with one dog they named Bofa, who would wake them by barking every morning.
On the ice, Team USA would take care of business making its way to its final destination: the gold medal game, where it would take on Team Canada — the only team to beat them in the Sochi Games up to that point.
With just under four minutes left and a 2-0 lead over the Canadians, Decker and her American teammates were on the brink of finishing what they sent out to do and she knew it.
“I turned to my line-mates and I was like, ‘Guys, we need to just own our next shift and we’ll be good to go,’” Decker said.
But as has been well documented now, Canada would go on to tie the game in regulation and score the gold-medal winning goal on a 5-on-3 power play to send Team USA home with the silver.
It was a journey that began nearly a year earlier and a lifetime of training before that. Its fate was decided in a matter of minutes at the end of that final game.
“My stomach dropped,” Decker said after Canada scored the game-winner. “You work so hard for the last six months to get to the final game to win a gold medal and its swept from you.”
Decker and Team USA would then have to endure what she called the “longest medal ceremony I’ve ever had” while fighting back the emotions that came with the disappointment.
While the medal Decker ultimately earned may be the wrong color she set out to get, she knows in time she will come to appreciate what she and her teammates accomplished in Sochi.
“Not everyone can say they went to the Olympics and competed let alone walk away with a medal. It’s hard to accept right now, but I think in the future I’ll look back and be pretty proud of not only my team, but myself.”
All the while, Decker remained true to her roots and as soon as she landed back in the United States, she headed to Madison to cheer on her former team in the first round of the WCHA playoffs.
Decker’s former head coach Mark Johnson, who was also an Olympian, was more than happy to have her back on campus, even if she couldn’t lace up for the Badgers.
“It would’ve been a lot better if she was on the ice, we could’ve utilized her in couple of situations out there anyway,” Johnson said with a chuckle after advancing to the WCHA Final Face-off Sunday. “She’s got a lot to be proud of, and certainly coming back here, supporting our team and watching us play is helpful to our younger players to see her walking around and what she meant to our program and her willingness to come back and support us says a lot about who she is.”