After a devastating 2014 loss in Sochi, the U.S. Women’s Hockey Team is more eager than ever to hit the ice at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, where they are readying to face off against their biggest rival, Canada.
“The devastation that we felt in Sochi after that final, it only built us up these past four years,” team captain Meghan Duggan told PEOPLE prior to heading to Pyeongchang. “We said to a lot of people, ‘We don’t train that hard for second place,’ And I’m looking forward to everyone watching how amazing this team is gonna be.”
The women — most of whom have known each other for years — say they are a tight-knit group who work hard and know how to have a good time.
“A lot of us are pretty lighthearted and like to have a lot of fun, joke around,” Brianna Decker says. “But we all have that switch that turns on when it’s game time.”
And that “switch” has long been on, as the team won its fourth consecutive world championship in April. But their impressive record isn’t all the team has been known for in recent years.
In March, the women made headlines when they threatened to pull out of the IIHF World Championship unless they received fair wages and support from USA Hockey. Star forward Hilary Knight says the stance was necessary, saying it was a “cause that’s bigger than ourselves.”
“We had our huge equitable support battle this past spring, which spoke volumes of the character that we had in the room,” she says.
Duggan adds: “I think as powerful female athletes it was important to us at that point to really make the stand that we did.”
In the end, the team and the organization negotiated a four-year deal that increased their financial support.
The team gearing up to compete in February includes 13 first-time Olympians, including five college players. Still, despite the newbies, the team is built on a core group of eight athletes who have played more than 100 international games with the team.
As veteran player Amanda Kessel puts it: “We just literally know each other so well.”
To learn more, visit teamusa.org. The Winter Olympics will air live, starting Feb. 8.
• Reporting by ADAM CARLSON