A wicked stick to the mouth nearly knocked Kelsey Kolojejchick out of field hockey.
At about the same time, Kathleen “Kat” Sharkey was having trouble scoring with her own stick.
Interesting how those frustrating times in the sport bred two key members of the 2016 U.S. Olympic field hockey team.
Kolojejchick and Sharkey, ages 24 and 26, respectively, are forever bonded by winning two Pennsylvania high school state championships together at Wyoming Seminary, gaining national acclaim as All-Americans at different colleges, and fulfilling a childhood quest by making the U.S. team.
“It’s just so neat,” Sharkey said. “It’s great having someone you’ve known for so long experience something so special with you.”
But they have another extraordinary link. It’s likely neither would be an Olympian without an assist from their families.
“I’ve been able to achieve the goal I wanted since I was 5 years old,” Kolojejchick said. “I just really think it was because of my parents and brother.
“They made this fire in my heart.”
She’s not kidding.
It was at the age of 11 when the daughter of Jim and Doreen Kolojejchick of Larksville found herself at a crossroads in sports.
The way Jim explained it, an opponent took a panicky swing during a game for beginners at the Wyoming Valley Sports Dome and caught his daughter in the mouth, and she began bleeding profusely.
“That coach was afraid (that) when she pulled her mouthpiece out, her teeth would be in it,” Jim said.
Instead, he said his daughter suffered a laceration to the roof of her mouth that was so severe, doctors could see through it straight to her nasal cavity.
And when she returned to action, Kelsey Kolojejchick regressed into a cave.
“Kelsey was always aggressive in whatever sport she played,” Jim Kolojejchick said. “When she came back, she was a little gun-shy. A girl would take a swing and Kelsey would back off, which was not her style.”
Finally, her father had seen enough.
“She and I had a conversation,” Jim explained. “I said, ‘This is not you. You have to play like you know how, or find another sport — and because of what happened to you, I don’t blame you if that is the case. But you can’t play afraid.’
“That little kid never looked back after that.”
It turned out to be a career-saving moment.
“That’s exactly what he said,” Kelsey Kolojejchick said. “I think I was on my bed, doing homework. After that injury, I was getting a little more timid. That’s not my style of play. He just came in to give me that tough criticism, tough love, and said, ‘I understand it was a traumatic injury, but you have to suck it up and play tough again.’
“I just needed to hear that.”
Sharkey, meanwhile, needed help with her shot.
Initially, the daughter of Tom and Anne Sharkey of Moosic was a talented passer with a penchant for registering assists, but she couldn’t put the ball in the cage.
“It was only my first season, ever, when I first picked up a stick,” Sharkey remembered. “I just hadn’t developed those skills yet.”
Her father found ways to improve them.
A doctor by profession, Tom Sharkey spent countless hours after work in the family’s backyard, rolling balls to his daughter so she could practice shooting at spots.
“She did it. I had nothing to do with it,” Tom insisted. “I just did all the kinds of things any parent would do.”
It still made an impact on Kat.
“My dad would help me,” she said. “He didn’t have a field hockey background, but just went by what he knew from other sports to help me get strength and quickness.”
In the first game of her freshman season in high school, Kat Sharkey scored three goals for Wyoming Seminary and was among the nation’s top goal scorers by the time she had graduated. From there, she blossomed into a two-time NCAA Division I scoring champion at Princeton, finishing first in 2010 and 2012 before making the U.S. Olympic team this year.
“We’re just immensely proud,” Anne Sharkey said. “There are 500 athletes from the United States who get to go to the Olympics. My daughter’s one of them. Can’t even fathom it.”
Once Kelsey Kolojejchick wrapped her mind around going full-force toward an Olympic field hockey career, there was no stopping her.
She was a three-time high school All-American at Wyoming Seminary, then became the first player in the University of North Carolina’s field hockey program to be chosen as an NCAA All-American four times from 2009-2012 before earning a spot on the 2016 Olympic team.
“I’m still in shock about it, that it’s a reality,” Doreen Kolojejchick said. “But I knew in my heart she could do this. She tried out for the Olympic team four years ago; she didn’t make the team. But I thought she was quite capable. Instead of giving up, she worked harder.”
Throughout their lives, that’s been the game plan for both Kelsey Kolojejchick and Kat Sharkey.
They’ve worked too long, and too hard, to pass up the opportunity to represent the United States in the Olympics and let concerns about mosquito-bred viruses such as Zika or the questionable water quality in Rio scare them away from the Olympics.
“I don’t think any one of us ever thought of pulling out,” Sharkey said. “Not for a second. Getting to the Olympics for anyone on this team is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We have put in so much hard work over the past four years. My teammates are depending on me. Everyone here feels the same.”
That burning desire to be Olympians goes back a long way with Sharkey and Kolojejchick.
“Their goal was to be on the U.S. team and eventually go to the Olympics,” Wyoming Seminary coach Karen Klassner said. “I knew they were serious very early on, as ninth-graders. … They gave up quite a bit. They would miss semi-formals, proms.
“We held them to a little bit of a different standard,” Klassner continued, “just because of what their aspirations were. We were a little harder on them at times.”
It wasn’t nearly as tough as Olympic training, though.
“It’s kind of overwhelming, how much work the team has put into this,” Kat Sharkey said at the Olympic Field Hockey Training Center in Manheim. “We’re here six days a week. When we’re not in the weight room or at practice, and we’re out here on the field all day, we’re supposed to be resting our bodies, eating right — because nutrition is very important.
“We’re not normal 25-year-olds,” she continued. “We don’t really have lives outside of this team. I’m OK with that. It’s gotten us to this point.”