AN APPRECIATION

Kelli Gannon, midfielder, United States

One in an occasional series.

By Al Mattei

Founder, TopOfTheCircle.com

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

Kelli Gannon came into 2004 as a three-year veteran of the U.S. women's national field hockey team, trying to infuse her mix of dominance, athleticism, and talent into a national-team program coming off its inability to qualify for the Sydney Olympics.

But just a month short of the goal, something went wrong.

Gannon was forced to retire from the game she loved because of chronic back problems requiring a spinal fusion.

Kelli Gannon was to be a leader in a new generation of field hockey player in this country, one given the secrets of international-style play from an early age, as well as the latitude to use them in a match.

Under the early tutelage of Tracey Paul, her head coach at Escondido San Pasqual (Calif.), Gannon and her teammates -- including her younger sister Kristi -- terrorized San Diego-area field hockey for the latter half of the 1990s.

Gannon matriculated to the University of Michigan in the fall of 1997 and helped build the program to the point where it actually got stronger upon her 2001 graduation: the following autumn, the Wolverines and sister Kristi won a well-deserved national title.

But Kelli Gannon didn't have much time afterwards to enjoy the accolades with her sister; it was back to residency camp at the Olympic Training Center.

There was much sacrifice over the years as the elder Gannon put in time in the residency program at Virginia Beach, working at the local Home Depot to make ends meet. There was the occasional friendly (she scored a blistering hat trick at Princeton) as well as travel and four- or six-nations tournaments.

But Gannon will be remembered as making the key play when she and the rest of Team USA were found themselves in the midst of a seven-month journey of uncertainty as to how the Americans would be able to qualify for the 2002 Women's World Cup.

The journey's end came in England, where Gannon capped off a 3-1 win with one of her dozen international goals.

Kelli Gannon became a valuable midfield cog for the national team, and was set to be the example of the kind of player that could emerge when allowed to learn, and play, an international style of hockey from an early age.

Then, her body betrayed her.

And the game -- the American game -- is diminished without her.

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