Playtime is over for the U.S. Women's Olympic hockey team. No more exhibition games to prepare for, no more pre-Olympic qualifiers—the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games start Sunday.
The sting of defeat at the 2014 Winter Games has stuck with this group for four long years. The thrill of winning three consecutive World Championships and seven of the past eight cannot heal the wounds from past performances on the global stage.
The gold medal has eluded the U.S. Women's program since the inaugural 1998 Nagano Games, winning three silver medals (‘02, ‘10, ‘14) and one bronze (‘06). But this time, they believe it's different.
"We're here. We're on a mission," American captain Meghan Duggan said in a recent interview with NBC Olympics. "We have a job to get done."
As a veteran of two previous Olympics, Duggan has plenty of experience with the exciting fanfare of the Winter Games—as well as the disappointment of falling short at the final hurdle. No matter what catches the team’s eye in PyeongChang, the players are determined to keep a workmanlike approach throughout the tournament.
"One of the biggest tasks at the Olympics is minimizing those distractions, and as elite athletes, that just comes with the job," Duggan said. "Obviously, we've done a lot of things as part of our training to help with a lot of that, but I think just having the mindset as an elite athlete. We all know individually what we need to do to prepare ourselves. And the same as a team: what we need to do as a group to make sure that we're ready every time the puck drops."
With a laser-focused squad taking the ice each game, the hope is that Team USA will echo history in the first Winter Games in Asia since Nagano.
The 1998 team served as a catalyst for young girls all across America, including several members of the team today.
"I think that's such a historic moment for our program and our sport, and being able to watch those girls capture that first-ever gold medal—that really started the journey for many of us," Duggan explained. "Certainly, for myself, but I know for a lot of the other girls on the team as well."
The sport has grown tremendously in the past 20 years, but now the next generation of women's hockey players need a new group to inspire them the same way Cammi Granato, Angela Ruggiero and Gretchen Ulion, among others, motivated these athletes.
"We're on the world stage. It's a big event," Duggan said. "There's a lot of hype, a lot of distractions. But just making sure that we stay focused on the process and what we came here to do. I know that's everyone's mindset."
The U.S. will open its Olympic campaign on Sunday morning, 2:40 a.m. ET against Finland.
Oliver Jung also contributed to this report