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Catching fire: Duke field hockey's Lauren Blazing grabs gold at Pan-Am games

<p>After two straight All-America selections, goalkeeper Lauren Blazing traveled to Canada with the U.S. national team and won gold in the Pan American Games.</p>

After two straight All-America selections, goalkeeper Lauren Blazing traveled to Canada with the U.S. national team and won gold in the Pan American Games.

“What did you do this summer?”

For the next two weeks, that question will be a staple of campus conversation. Newly-minted freshmen will ask it while eating meals at the newly-renovated Marketplace. Old friends will use it to catch up quickly on the quad between classes.

The question will generate an untold number of unique responses, ranging from the orthodox to the avant-garde. For redshirt senior Lauren Blazing, the summer yielded a gold medal—and much more.

Blazing spent three weeks in Toronto in July competing in the Pan American Games with the U.S. national field hockey team. Held every four years in the 12 months preceding the Summer Olympics, the Pan-Am Games bring together more than 7,000 athletes from 41 countries to compete in 48 sports as varied as wakeboarding, baseball, mountain biking and table tennis.

For the Durham native, the opportunity to compete with the U.S. national team was the realization of a dream she had held since arriving at Duke in the fall of 2011.

“I was pretty much off the walls when I found out I had made the team [in June 2014],” Blazing said. “I hadn’t expected it at all. You never do. I got an email from [U.S. head coach] Craig Parnham to everyone that had made it, and I just looked at it and was like ‘Oh my gosh’, and then I was like ‘Mom, guess what!’ and she was pretty excited, too.”

Blazing’s journey to the Pan-Am Games began in seventh grade, when she was selected to enroll in the Futures Program operated by Team USA. The elite training program, which brings on approximately 5,000 students every year, serves at the entry point for the Olympic Development Pipeline for nearly all U.S. Women’s National Team members.

In six years of training with the Futures program, Blazing struggled to stand out—every year at tryouts, she was sent home early, never making it through the regional stage. When Blazing graduated high school, she aged out of the Futures program and her path to the U.S. National Team seemed closed.

But the two-time All-American goalkeeper opted to stay close to home for the next leg of her career, accepting a scholarship from then first-year head coach Pam Bustin to play at Duke.

It was there—somewhere between the pipes at Jack Katz Stadium—that Blazing caught fire.

Blazing quickly made a name for herself with the Blue Devils as being equal parts hardworking and humble. She began training with the USA High Performance team in the summers. From there she was selected to Junior National Camp and competed with the U-21 U.S. team in the 2012 Junior Pan-Am Games.

During her redshirt sophomore year, Blazing enjoyed a breakout season in goal, culminating in the Blue Devils’ fourth NCAA title game appearance. She then began traveling to Team USA Headquarters in Lancaster, Pa., to train with the senior national team for added practice.

In June 2014, she got her email.

“She really loves the challenge of getting better,” Bustin said. “For her to go—without any expectations—to the national team practices and show up and play without expecting anything in return is exactly why she got the opportunity. She prepared herself to be ready, and she was. That’s just the kind of teammate that she is.”

Blazing and the rest of the American squad arrived in Toronto one week before their first competition. Daily schedules were dominated with practices and other team activities, but Blazing—who served as a reserve goalie for the squad—still found time between film sessions to explore the space around her and enjoy the Pan-Am Village.

“The whole time you’re focused on hockey, but you also have this amazing village experience,” Blazing said. “At night or after games, you take the time to wind down, talk to people and hang out and watch a little bit of the other events.”

In the group stage of the tournament, the United States posted three straight shut-outs, including a 12-0 rout of Cuba in the finale. In the quarterfinals and semifinals, the Americans beat both the Dominican Republic and Canada without allowing a goal, heading into the gold medal game against Argentina with a cumulative goal differential of 37-0 through five games.

With the gold medal on the line, the United States held strong, winning narrowly in a 2-1 contest.

“First and foremost, it was a really good hockey learning experience,” Blazing said. “You get to spend time with the team. You get to know everyone on a deeper level because you are pretty much together 24/7.”

The trip was also provided Blazing with a chance to think deeply about the obstacles facing female athletes around the world and the privileges she has enjoyed as a U.S. athlete.

Blazing explicitly named the issue of pay as a sign of inequality in women’s’ sports across the Americas.

“We’re a funded team,” Blazing said. “Our players get paid, and that’s not true for every team. There are other teams where the girls are working full-time and get to practice maybe twice a week. There are countries where it is almost frowned upon to be playing field hockey—and these girls are still out there. In some places, you’re either making money [at your job] or you’re seen as wasting those hours playing a sport.”

Blazing was not the only Blue Devil representing the U.S. this summer. Duke alum Stefanie Fee also sported the stars and stripes this July as a defender, helping preserve the team’s five shutout victories.

Fee has been a mentor for Blazing since her high school days at Durham Academy, where Fee helped coach the young prospect. In their lone season together at Duke, the Virginia Beach, Va., native made a strong impression on Blazing as a team player.

“It’s definitely been a really good connection there,” Blazing said. “She’s someone I really looked up to in my time at Duke. It’s just one of those things where every time I go up north to train I know I have a place to stay, I know I have someone to rely on as a support and someone I can go to.”

With the start of Duke’s season just around the corner, Blazing is about to trade in her red, white and blue jersey for a blue and white uniform. Her time with Team USA could continue as well—because the Olympics are right around the corner.

“It’s the perfect story…and what a cool experience for both Fee and Blaze to get the gold,” Bustin said. “I’m excited to see what [Blazing] does this season and how she builds her role with the U.S. national team after Duke.”

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