FOCUS ON THE NOW By Annie Pankowski

I was heartbroken, confused and angry when the text message arrived out of the blue and gave me some perspective.

I had just been cut from the U.S. Olympic women’s hockey team — again — and was trying to hold myself together long enough to figure out what to do next.

For the second time in my life, a cherished dream had been shattered at the last minute.

For the second time in four years, an uncomfortable conversation with USA Hockey officials ended with someone telling me I wasn’t good enough and me leaving the room in tears.

For the second time in my career at Wisconsin, I would show up on campus carrying a lot of emotional baggage that needed to get unpacked and put away.

But as I reflect on all the turmoil that stemmed from my latest Olympic experience, it was that random text message from a casual acquaintance that really got my attention.

“You deserve better,” it said, “but don’t stumble over something behind you.”

I loved that advice. It’s helped me get my bearings. It’s helped me embrace reality. It’s helped me get focused on the now.

I have to admit that I’m still finding my way back emotionally, but I’m getting there. It still hurts to think about what might have been, that I could have an Olympic gold medal. There are moments when a random image will trigger a memory and, suddenly, I’m in tears. It doesn’t happen very often. When it does, though, it stings. But there’s no doubt in my mind that I’m stronger, wiser, more confident and more mature for having gone through my Olympic experiences.

I found the people I could truly lean on.

I discovered what’s really important to me.

I learned that I’m tough.

I got a great education in life along the way.

There’s no doubt in my mind that I’m stronger, wiser, more confident and more mature for having gone through my Olympic experiences.

. . .

The first time I was cut, I was 18. I’d been centralized with the U.S. women’s national team — traveling and playing with them — but was let go just weeks before the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.

Looking back now, I wasn’t ready to be on the team yet. I was young and naïve — both as a player and person — and reacted as such. I was lost after it happened and I had no idea what to do or where to go in the months before I would come to Wisconsin, so instead of going back home to Laguna Hills, California, I returned to Stowe, Vermont, to play for the North American Hockey Academy that I skated for in high school.

I didn’t know very much about myself back then. I didn’t know that much about hockey — about what it really takes to own a challenge and to pour your heart into something and not get anything in return — so I handled that first rejection in immature ways. I was jealous. I had a lot of anger.

So I came to Wisconsin later that year with a chip on my shoulder. I challenged myself to be the best player out there. I had put off joining the Badgers to pursue my Olympic dreams. I was ready to redeem myself.

My desire to be the best was driven in part by Badger Nation. My first game experience was unforgettable. Fans in the stands at LaBahn Arena. Notes from young girls saying they wanted to be just like me. Teammates welcoming me with open arms.

Madison gave me so much more to love about the sport. It gave me a community and a family. It gave me an emotional foundation on which to build my hockey career.

I spent the next three years re-dedicating myself to the game. My coaches and teammates challenged me to elevate my level of play. I think I did that.

While going to school and skating for the Badgers, I continued my involvement with USA Hockey, taking all the feedback I received to heart. Told that my fitness test numbers were too low, I hit the gym with a fury. Told that my foot speed wasn’t where it needed to be, I spent my spring break in Oregon working with the national team’s speed coach to upgrade that part of my game.

Madison gave me so much more to love about the sport. It gave me a community and a family. It gave me an emotional foundation on which to build my hockey career.

I did everything asked of me, but never expected anything in return. That’s how it works when you are competing with the best of the best.

Still, I didn’t see the second cut coming.

. . .

I was let go just a couple weeks before we were supposed to leave for the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. It happened a few days before we were to play Team Canada in San Jose, California. Since it was the closest I would ever be to my home as a member of the national team, 40 family members and friends were all set to come and see me wear the Red, White and Blue and play in one of the best, most intense rivalries in the world.

It was one of the most awkward, painful experiences of my life because all the players had been assured months earlier that the 23-person roster was set.

We were training in a suburb of Tampa, Florida. It was around 8 in the morning and I was at the rink early, working on mental skills and visualization before practice. When someone from USA Hockey came up and asked if I could meet in the coaches’ room, I had a sense of déjà vu. I put my headphones in the locker room, put a sweatshirt on and went to the meeting.

When I walked into the coaches’ room, I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience. I wasn’t sure if this was actually happening — again — because — once again — we’d been told in the spring that the roster had been set.

When they told me they were letting me go, I laughed one of those laughs. You know, the one where you don’t know what else to do because you’re in shock.

I remember just wanting to leave. I shook their hands, walked out one door and they walked out the other. They went into the locker room and told the team and I went outside and cried on the phone for an hour with my parents.

It had to have been a jolt for them. Not only was it 5 a.m. in California when I called, at some point in the conversation they realized that they’d invested a small fortune in airline tickets, hotel rooms and Olympic event tickets for a trip they wouldn’t be making.

I haven’t asked my parents if we’ve gotten any of our money back. I’m not sure I want to know the answer. It wasn’t just my family, either. I had friends who committed to make the expensive trip only to find out I wasn’t going after all. Two Olympic jerseys, No. 27, with “Pankowski” on the back sit unused in a closet back home.

Anyway, things got more uncomfortable for me when I realized I’d left my room keys in my equipment bag, which was still in my locker, so I had to sit in my car outside in the parking lot for another hour while they told the team and they went to warm up for practice.

That was horrible. All I wanted to do was leave.

I just didn’t want to face my teammates, didn’t want to go back in the dressing room. Eventually I got a text from a staffer saying the coast was clear and I could come in and get my stuff.

I went back to the Saddlebrook Resort, where the team was headquartered, packed all my stuff in my car and called my parents to tell them I was driving back to Madison.

My dad tried to discourage me, saying I was still too emotional for such a trip. But I was done crying, or so I thought.

“Dad, I’m not staying here,” I said. “I need to go.”

Before I could leave, though, my roommate and fellow Cali girl, Cayla Barnes, a defenseman at Boston College, came back to the room. She was crying.

“The girls want to know if they can see you,” she asked.

Part of me didn’t want to go through it. I was done crying and wanted to leave. But then I had this thought: I can choose to take this like a little kid and run away or I can say goodbye to everyone. I’m not mad at them. They were the best part of the whole thing.

A bunch came over. They were crying and it was hard for me because everyone else was crying. I thought I was done. I thought I was good.

. . .

Before long, I was in my 2011 Mercury Mariner headed for Atlanta eight hours away. I remember passing the time listening to some random podcasts. My dad met me in Atlanta and we drove as far as Illinois. We got to Madison the next afternoon. I put my gear back in the locker room at LaBahn, enrolled in school and found an apartment.

I’m incredibly grateful for all the opportunities I’ve gotten through USA Hockey. I’ve traveled the world. I’ve made some great friends. There’s no feeling — no honor — quite like representing your country, wearing the Stars and Stripes and hearing “The Star Spangled Banner” played when you win.

But there have been some devastating lows.

I tuned in to watch my former teammates play twice in South Korea, both times against Team Canada, mainly because I have friends and former teammates on both sides. Alone in my campus apartment, I mostly watched as a hockey fan, but when the second meeting came down to a shootout and Team USA won the gold medal, it hit me hard.

I cried. I don’t know if it was relief that it was over or excitement that it happened.

I saw first-hand what those girls went through. Some had been chasing a dream for eight, 10 years. I think I was crying partly because of happiness for them, partly because I wished I was with them.

My Olympic rejections were a lot alike, but also very different.

The first time my thoughts were: “These people hate me. I’m not skilled enough. I’m not fast enough, tough enough, experienced enough. I’m not … enough.”

I spent a lot of time between 2014 and 2018 trying to change my mindset from all the things I wasn’t to all the things I am. I’m a great sister, daughter, teammate and friend. I’m proud that people see me as a role model. I’m an aspiring veterinarian with a desire to challenge my education with lofty career goals.

Changing my mindset made all the difference the second time I was cut. My reaction: “Now what? How am I going to take care of myself?”

My dad has always told me that the people in your life fall into three categories. Those in the bottom level suck the energy out of you, drain your resources and eat you up. Those in the middle go where the wind blows. Those on the top can be counted on no matter what.

My top third picked me up and let me lean on them until I could stand on my own. That includes my mom, Diane, and dad, Richard; my brother, John, and sister, Ali; my boyfriend, Gavin; and my best friend, Lauren. That includes my “second moms” Stephanie, Karen and Christy and “second family” members Phil and Daniele.

My parents have been there every step of the way, whether it’s never missing a game or flying cross-country at a moment’s notice to console me on a two-day car ride from Atlanta to Madison.

Same goes for my brother and sister. They have great perspective and awareness about their youngest sibling and know just how and when to get their points across. The camping trip we took down the coast of California jump-started my upward trajectory.

My boyfriend has been a rock for me through it all. He knows how to make me laugh, reminds me of the power of love and encourages me not to fight the current.

It’s great knowing that they have my back. I don’t know where I’d be in all of this if I didn’t have my family’s love and understanding.

The top third also includes the coaches, players and support staff at Wisconsin. The girls who were seniors last season were particularly helpful. They knew me. They’d been with me for three years. They cried when I cried. They were happy when I was happy. Those girls — Maddie Rolfes, Lauren Williams, Baylee Wellhausen and Claudia Kepler — were awesome in welcoming me back and helping me heal.

People ask me if I’ve found peace. The way I think about it, I climbed the same mountain that those Team USA girls with a gold medal climbed. I was right there the whole time. They told me I was going to get to the top — I could see the top — and someone said, “Sorry, you can’t go past this point.”

Am I at peace? It’s always going to hurt. It’s the same way with losing the NCAA championship game to Clarkson in 2017. I can tell you about that game and the shots I missed and how I wished it would have been different.

But it’s not going to own my life. I have so many other aspects to my character that I don’t need “gold medalist” next to my name. I’m OK with chasing that dream as long as I can and maybe it happens in the future — the 2022 Games in Beijing, China, seem a long way off — but right now I think I do have a little peace because I did climb that mountain.

This process has pushed me to come to terms with, not my identity so much, but understanding who I am. Growing up as a hockey player, I just wanted a Division I scholarship. I checked that box and then was excited to be invited to a USA Hockey camp. The feeling of being a U.S. athlete became who I was. All of a sudden, the thought of being an Olympian consumed my life. I had to do this.

. . .

Something else that’s helped me get my bearings is being involved with Occupaws, a non-profit organization that provides guide dogs for the visually impaired in Wisconsin. I’ve helped train the dogs for most of my time in Madison and it’s tremendously rewarding.

I had a black lab named Allie in the spring. I’m sure she kept me sane and helped me through feeling unmotivated because I wasn’t playing for the Badgers, wasn’t traveling with the team, and I wasn’t all that excited to come to practice, where I was playing defense instead of wing. She didn’t know anything about hockey, but I swear she knew what I was feeling, especially on those days when I didn’t want to get out of bed.

Growing up we always had dogs and foster animals in our home, mainly because my parents are veterinarians. It’s been that consistent thing my whole life — I just applied to vet school — and it’s what attracted me to Occupaws. Dogs make life fun. People smile at you on the street when you’re walking by and the girls in the locker room are really excited when I bring a dog to practice.

Dogs make life fun. People smile at you on the street when you’re walking by and the girls in the locker room are really excited when I bring a dog to practice.

It’s an incredible feeling being back on the ice, playing my senior season with the Badgers. The thought of the goal horn at LaBahn gets me out of bed every day. It’s a loud reminder to celebrate the little things as they come. I’m so excited to be back here playing in front of these people. They make the place come alive.

I was afraid I’d lost my love for the game after my time with Team USA, but not anymore. The atmosphere here is about having fun and excelling and growing. That’s what’s exciting for me.

If there’s a word to describe how I feel in this, my senior season, it’s hungry. I want people who come to see the Badgers and watch me play and watch Emily Clark, who skated for Team Canada in South Korea, and say, “Wow, those girls are incredible. What were they thinking when they cut Pankowski?”

I don’t want to put too many “have-tos” or “need-to-bes” on this season. I want an NCAA title more than anything. I thought we had everything we needed to win one my junior year, but we fell just short. This year I think we have everything we need and then some. I have a lot of faith in this group.

The point I want to hammer home to everyone is that I’m still breathing and I’m still OK. The last 11 months have taught me a lot, but one thing stands out.

I learned that I’m tough. You’re not going to beat me in the tough category, that’s for sure. I’m really proud of how resilient I’ve been.

I’m not looking behind me.

I’m looking straight ahead.

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