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An Olympian from Berlin Township helps bring field hockey to the masses

Few of the girls - and nearly none of the boys - knew the working end of a field hockey stick as they filed into the gym at Delran Intermediate School.

Olympian Rachel Dawson (left) and Lauren Pfeiffer at Delran Intermediate School.
Olympian Rachel Dawson (left) and Lauren Pfeiffer at Delran Intermediate School.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

Few of the girls - and nearly none of the boys - knew the working end of a field hockey stick as they filed into the gym at Delran Intermediate School.

Now maybe one or two will grow up to be a field hockey Olympian like Rachel Dawson.

"I'm here to teach you about the sport I love," Dawson told the youngsters, ages 8 to 11, and held up a curved, clubfooted stick she likened to an "upside-down candy cane."

In minutes she would put sticks in the hands of all 65 and send them scurrying around the gym. But this was more than mere child's play.

Dawson, 27, who lives in Berlin Township and played for Eastern High School in Voorhees before competing at the Beijing and London Olympics, was there to light a fire.

The U.S. women's field hockey team placed eighth among 12 teams in Beijing in 2008, she explained before the children arrived. It came in dead last this year in London.

"It was an eye-opener," said Dawson, a midfield defender.

"We need to get better [at field hockey] as a country, which is why I'm here: to give the game visibility, to introduce kids at a young age, and get sticks in their hands."

It was Dawson's second demonstration on behalf of the U.S. Olympic Committee's Team for Tomorrow, which this year began to send Olympians to schools and youth programs.

Its goal is to steer more children into sports and, over time, expand the pool of top athletes available to the nation's Olympic teams.

Wednesday's program in Delran was the 250th field hockey demonstrations by Team for Tomorrow this year, said Liz Tchou, its field hockey coordinator.

Dawson and her sister, Megan, gave another demonstration to 30 children at the Mount Laurel YMCA on Thursday night.

With a donation of 8,250 sticks and balls from the Denver equipment manufacturer Harrow Sports, Team for Tomorrow hopes to expose 15,000 girls and boys to the sport, said Tchou, a former Olympian who grew up in Medford Lakes and played for Shawnee High.

An Olympic men's game for more than a century, and a women's sport since the 1970s, field hockey is hugely popular in Britain, the Netherlands, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, India and elsewhere, Dawson told the Delran children.

"I challenge you to explore it," she said.

Dawson rarely stopped smiling as she talked about the virtues of athletic competition - "it forces you to your limits" - and answered dozens of questions.

Yes, she said, she gets nervous before games, but never in them.

No, "we don't make a ton of money," but the game had taken her around the world.

"Are you better than your partner?" one boy eventually asked, and pointed to Dawson's USA Field Hockey teammate Lauren Pfeiffer, who had accompanied her.

"That's a good question. "Shall we play right now?" said Dawson, a Team for Tomorrow employee who hopes to compete in the 2016 Olympics.

The kids cheered as Dawson squared off against Pfeiffer, a collegiate All-American at the University of Iowa who grew up in Mount Laurel. Pfeiffer was a star at Lenape High, where she sometimes played against Dawson.

Then as now, Dawson - who led Eastern to an 89-0 record in four years - was dominant. She won all three demonstrations.

Then the children were instructed how to hold the stick - left hand at the top, right hand at lower-middle, vertical and away from the body - and started on drills.

The gym filled with squeals and laughter as they tried to guide balls across the padded floor, turned, and brought them back.

"Flat side only," Dawson admonished repeatedly, as her pupils desperately flailed at the errant orbs.

"Want to know a little secret?" she asked the during a break.

"In the last Olympics we tried going too fast. So find a balance between speed and control."

Among the few novices displaying natural control was 10-year-old Glen Morrison, who, like all the children, lives in Delran. He not only guided the ball deftly across the floor but smacked it past Dawson, who played goalie.

It was his first time holding a stick, said Glen, who plays basketball, baseball and soccer but had been "not so sure" about field hockey. Now he was "more open" to it.

Brooke Hennegan, 11, called her initiation to field hockey "very fun."

Cheyenne Maximo, 8, who has played the sport for three years, learned nothing new, she said. But seeing Dawson up close "made this my special day," she said.

And Zack Zuckerman, 11, a wrestler, pronounced field hockey "a pretty cool sport" he would "probably" try again.

After little more than an hour, Dawson and Pfeiffer wrapped it up, but not before posing for a group photo as the kids shouted "Team USA" in unison.

"Thank you, guys," Dawson told them. "We need you.