Play for now: Katrina Carter’s Olympic dream, pursuit of excellence

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There once was a girl who insisted on playing baseball with the boys. She was pursuing a passion, but to others, she was seen as different.

Confusion often circulated in the stands when parents saw a little girl in the midst of a team of boys. This girl had the talent and the aspiration to grow within the sport, and even made it onto the All-Star team, but the lack of support denied her further growth and persuaded her to try softball because, as others put it, “it suited her better.” 

Once she switched to softball more barriers arose, as coaches would critique her for playing like a baseball player. Feeling constrained and dissatisfied, she knew she was destined for something greater than what everyone was telling her to be. 

When she was eight, that girl became tired of the criticism, dropped softball and tried her hand at another sport. It was love at first sight, and it became clear she was born to be a field hockey player. 

This girl is Katrina Carter, who now plays Division I field hockey at Cal and has made it all the way to the U.S. National Women’s Development Team.

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During Carter’s senior year of high school, there was no question that she would play field hockey at the college level. After receiving offers from other colleges, Carter received a call from head coach Shellie Onstead late in the recruitment process. It was an offer she could not pass up. Once Carter met the team, she knew she had found her new home.

“She was one of the strong players in the Northern California area,” Onstead said. “You could tell that she had the talent and athletic ability, and she was really driven. It wasn’t long before her senior year we had identified her and started pursuing her.” 

In the middle of an exciting senior year of high school, tragedy struck. Carter had a devastating injury to her knee right before her freshman season at Cal. Ironically, the injury was not the result of sports, rather a household chore. 

“That was so disappointing for everyone,” Onstead explained. “You just feel bad for the player and want to make sure she’s okay. But in the middle of the call, you know, I finally say, ‘Well what happened?’ And she said she was doing laundry.” 

Something that is now amusing was a much more serious matter at the time, as Carter was informed she had a disease called osteochondritis dissecans that caused the tip of her femur to snap off. Reconstructive surgery was performed to clear out the bone, and stem cells were grafted. Carter spent the next six months growing back the lost bone, spending time each day attached to a machine.

It was an uncertain moment. Carter was unsure if she would ever return to the caliber of player she had been before the injury, but she persevered.

“It was kind of upsetting, I had high hopes for freshman year,” Carter said. “But in the end, I think it made me a stronger player, and I think that because of that injury I am playing where I am now. It gave me that motivation to really work hard and be at the level of everybody else who had been training without an injury.”

Slowing down is not easy when you have built up so much momentum, but Carter was able to maneuver through a difficult obstacle and accelerate to new speeds because of it. Not long after she started playing again, she was picked up for the U.S. Women’s National Development Team, affording her opportunities to play in Argentina and Holland with some of the best players and coaches in the world. 

With the majority of field hockey concentrated on the East Coast, Carter spends her time flying back and forth in between seasons. Through a difficult schedule, Carter has displayed dedication to the sport, and is able to use these international experiences to enhance her college play, earning her the spot as one of the top three scorers on Cal’s team every year of her career. 

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Carter grew up in Gilroy, California, with her mom, dad, sister and two brothers. As kids, they were always encouraged to try new things, but if not for her sister’s interest in field hockey and her high school coach Adam Gemar, she may have never stumbled across the sport. 

It was at one of her sister’s practices that Adam introduced her to field hockey after seeing Carter running around the field. He handed her a stick and from then on her love for the sport only grew, and her future was forever changed.

“Adam is just an amazing coach,” Carter said. “I really credit all my success to him. He really saw something in me and worked hard with me.”

Carter may not have known her potential at the time, but Adam knew she had a gift. Over the years, Carter and Adam developed a strong relationship, one that continues to stand the test of time.

“Out of all the girls I have coached, Katrina is in the top 1% most-driven. She would never take a day off,” Gemar said. “If I would picture three girls in my head out of the 20 years, she’s one of them that would make it all the way.” 

As soon as she picked up the sport, she was on U-16 teams, keeping up with players twice her age. Carter then went on to join the Futures Program, an Olympic pipeline organization whose tournaments got her noticed by some of the top college coaches. 

This drive both on the field and off the field made her literally unstoppable. That drive manifests itself in her shooting ability. Her high-powered hit is one of her greatest assets and supplied one of her most pivotal moments this season at Cal in its game against UC Davis, where she made a sudden shot from the baseline, firing the ball into the net. 

“Her hit is amazing, she could go top shelf and put it on the ground, she could do whatever she wanted with her first hit,” Gemar said. “During practices, I would stand in the goal as a tipper, but every time KC (Katrina) came up, I would back away because her hits are so hard.”

Carter’s control and persistence have gotten her to where she is now, but the community surrounding the sport and the relationships she formed in the process are what keeps her there. One of the most important relationships to Carter is the one she has with her family.

“I grew up with a very, very supportive family,” Carter explained. “My parents, especially, would do anything to give me the opportunity to pursue what I wanted, and I am so grateful for that.”

Free time is scarce for Carter — but despite everything going on, the Carters still find time to carry out family traditions whether it be watching “Hocus Pocus” together at Halloween or taking family photos with Santa Claus during the holidays. 

Growing up she was especially close with her older brother, Joshua, and the siblings shared many spontaneous adventures together and fueled one another’s appetite to try new things. 

“Katrina has always been this very vibrant, out there person, she’s always herself,” Joshua said. “It’s easy to feel yourself around her, so all of our adventures together were full of random and crazy things.”

One thing that you can always count on with Carter is that she will always supply the dance moves. During one of their annual family trips to see Santa Claus, Joshua and Carter’s spontaneity made for an especially good photo, as their dance moves successfully persuaded Santa to twerk.

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The love Carter’s family has for her is immeasurable. From traveling between the coasts to attending almost every single home game, their support and admiration of Carter and what she has accomplished is unequivocal. 

“Her father always said she was the whole package, she had a real driving passion for things,” said Carter’s mom, Amy. “She never backed down and always went full-tilt into things she enjoyed. She was always willing to put in the time and work in goals she set for herself.”

The Olympics have always been a goal for Carter, and she continues to take steps toward achieving this goal. When she earned her spot on the development team, it became a turning point in her career, and this goal became more of a reality. 

“Her getting onto the development team for the US women’s field hockey was probably the most exciting point in her career for me and potentially even my family,” Joshua said. “I was so excited. I was screaming on the phone and jumping up and down because this was something that was part of Katrina’s dream and plans all along.”

No journey is meant to be easy — and Carter’s is no exception. Words like “unrealistic” and “unattainable” have never been a part of Carter’s vocabulary. She was able to turn setbacks into motivation, prove the odds wrong and continuing to excel towards her goals. After Carter graduates she will move to the East Coast and progress toward her ultimate goal of competing at the Olympic level. 

Mara Redican covers field hockey. Contact her at [email protected].