Olympic dreams by way of Durham

  • Florida Panthers forward Bobby Butler (26) skates during hockey training camp, Monday, Sept. 21, 2014, in Coral Springs, Fla. The Panthers play the Dallas Stars in their first preseason game of the season Wednesday. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky) Lynne Sladky

  • ABOVE: Former UNH hockey player Kacey Bellamy (22), seen here playing for Team USA in the 2014 Winter Olympics, is back on the U.S. women’s hockey team for a third time in the Pyeongchang Games. RIGHT: Bobby Butler, who played for the UNH men’s hockey team from 2007-10, leads the line during 2014 training camp with the Florida Panthers. Butler, who is currently playing in the American Hockey League, will also compete for Team USA in the 2018 Olympic Games. AP file photos

For the Monitor
Saturday, February 10, 2018

DURHAM – They dreamed the dreams. Over the course of the next couple of weeks, they’ll live those dreams out.

Kacey Bellamy and Bobby Butler. Annika Taylor and Clare Egan.

They are the University of New Hampshire’s 2018 Olympic athletes – Bellamy and Butler as hockey players and Taylor and Egan as Nordic skiing competitors, Taylor a cross country skier and Egan in biathlon – and they are gathered with the world’s best athletes in Pyeongchang, South Korea ready and eager to put years of toil and training, preparation and competition, on the line on the world’s largest stage.

In addition to those UNH grads competing, former Wildcat Jenn Wakefield will compete for the Canadian Women’s hockey team. Wakefield played two seasons for UNH and transferred after the 2008-09 season to Boston University.

The UNH Nordic ski team will also be represented by a couple of other former Wildcats, who will be working in service technician and support roles with the U.S. team. Tim Baucom and Andrew Morehouse were UNH seniors in 2009 and have worked in the ski industry in various capacities.

Both will be working with the US Nordic skiers in testing, waxing and otherwise preparing skis for the competition.

Among the Olympic athletes, Bellamy is an assistant captain with the U.S. women’s Olympic hockey team and is in her third Olympics and already owns a pair of silver medals. Butler, Taylor and Egan are first-time Olympians.

Taylor is the youngest of the group at 24. The other three have something else in common: they are all 30 and were born within seven months of each other.

These are the stories of Annika Taylor, Clare Egan, Kacey Bellamy and Bobby Butler.

Annika Taylor

Egan, Butler and Bellamy are competing for the United States in South Korea. Taylor will march into the Olympic Stadium as a representative of Great Britain. She carries dual citizenship (her father is originally from the United Kingdom) and she’s taken an international route to the Olympics.

Taylor closed out her UNH career with an All-American performance in the 15K classical race at the NCAA championships in March of 2015 at Mt. Hoevenberg at Lake Placid, the site of the 1980 Winter Olympics, before graduating with a degree in chemistry.

Coming to UNH from Truckee, Calif., Taylor’s steady improvement at the collegiate level encouraged her to continue in the sport.

“Even as a freshman, this was her goal,” said Corey Schwartz, UNH’s coordinator of skiing and head Nordic coach. “She was very outward with it. I know a lot of people say that. If you look at her trajectory over four years here, she went from not making NCAAs to being a good Carnival skier to being the best in the East. Each year she just learned more about how to succeed and what she needed to do.”

Success as a Wildcat begat more success.

“I felt that I had made the necessary jumps in my skiing ability to make it worth the effort and financial strain to pursue a professional career in cross country skiing,” Taylor said late last year. “I raced my first World Cup race the winter after I graduated UNH, and then moved to Lillehammer, Norway, for the best possible training opportunity a year later.”

The move paid off.

In late January, Taylor was officially named to Great Britain’s team that will be the nation’s largest Winter Olympics group ever overall at 59 members and also has a record number of skiers and snowboarders at 25 athletes. She’s the only female on a four-person cross country squad.

“Annika knew she needed to go overseas and put herself in that environment where she’s training with the best,” Schwartz said. “That’s what she did. She joined a club in Lillehammer and she’s pretty much been there ever since.”

Taylor turned in a couple of Top 40 results in freestyle events at the World Championship in Finland last year and also was fourth in the 10-kilometer classical race at the Austrian National Championships.

“Annika’s focused,” Schwartz said. “She’s the type that says, ‘All right, I’m going skiing today for four hours.’ Both Clare and Annika were into being the best they could be. I think that’s just part of that step towards committing to training and racing to make the Olympics.”

Perhaps the tweet she posted on Jan. 25, the day Great Britain’s Olympic skiers and snowboarders were officially announced out it best: “YES! This is the best Thursday in a while. #TeamGB #PyeongChang2018 #WinterOlympics #crosscountry #skiing”

Clare Egan

Egan, 30, was at UNH for only one year: A busy one. She not only competed in cross country skiing, but ran cross country and for the Wildcat track & field team in the spring.

She came out of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, and started her collegiate career as a runner at Wellesley College in Massachusetts where they competed in Division III in track & field and did not have a ski team.

Egan took care of that. She put together a plan and founded the Wellesley Nordic Skiing Club. She became Wellesley’s first outdoor track All-American in the 1,500-meter run and earned her way to the NCAA Ski Championships as an individual.

She graduated from Wellesley in 2010 with a year’s worth of athletic eligibility remaining and wanted more. She accepted a track scholarship to UNH, which had recruited her out of high school, and headed to Durham to run and ski.

“For me, UNH was a critical steppingstone between my Division III undergraduate career and a post-collegiate professional career,” Egan said shortly after being officially named to the United States biathlon team in December. “Without the results I had from the Division I program at UNH, there’s no chance I would have gotten the attention of any post-collegiate training programs. That was pivotal in earning my spot with the Craftsbury (Vt.) Green Racing Project.”

Her post-collegiate skiing led to her being introduced to biathlon – which combines cross country skiing with rifle shooting – and with that and teaching and encouragement from coaches and teammates, Egan was off.

In her final collegiate season in track & field in 2011, Egan won the America East steeplechase championship and helped the Wildcats win a New England Championship.

“I don’t think I’d be where I am today if all of those things hadn’t worked in my favor and I hadn’t gotten a track scholarship and come to UNH and run and skied,” Egan said.

Today she is in South Korea for the Olympics.

The Olympic dream, if it was a dream, came a little later for her, said Egan, who earned a graduate degree from UNH in linguistics and spoke five languages before she added Korean to the list.

She started to eye South Korea after making a serious bid for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi not all that long after taking up biathlon.

“I wasn’t really dreaming about this until then,” Egan said. “I guess I’m not so much a dreamer. Once I saw it was possible, then I did it. I think there are two different kinds of people. There are the dreamers and then there’s whatever I am. I figured out if it could be possible and then I figured out the steps to get there and then I did the steps.”

Kacey Bellamy

Bellamy, a defenseman, is the Olympic veteran of this group with silver medals earned in Vancouver in 2010 and Sochi in 2014, both years with runner-up finishes to Canada.

UNH head coach Hilary Witt and associate head coach Stephanie Jones know Bellamy and her game well, very well.

Witt was an assistant coach with the U.S. Olympic team in 2014 before taking the UNH job a few months after Sochi. Jones, who played for the Wildcats, returned to be an assistant coach in the program in 2006 and coached Bellamy during her final three standout years with the team, culminating with an All-American season in 2009 and her graduation with a degree in women’s studies.

Both coaches rave not only about Bellamy’s talents and abilities, but the mental toughness she possesses to hold on to and expand her position on the US team and go against the best players in the world.

“When I was coaching Kacey the thing that stuck out for me was how tough she was both mentally and physically,” said Witt, who worked with her in world championships, along with other tournaments and camps in the years leading up to Sochi. “She could fight through anything mentally and she worked incredibly hard. She always wanted to get better. That’s why she’s had such long, sustained success. She was willing to learn and had an open mind and had a work ethic to go along with all her natural ability.”

Bellamy used all those traits to her advantage at UNH. She was an accomplished player at the collegiate level, but had not yet made her mark beyond that.

In fact, her experience at a national camp she attended was eye-opening.

“She didn’t make the Under-22 team and they kind of laid into her that she needed to get stronger and needed to get faster and she needed to know the game better,” Jones said.

Bellamy set about doing all of the above.

“I remember when she went home she was taken aback a bit,” Jones said. “But she said, ‘All right,’ and looked in the mirror. She took it to heart and she put the pieces together. She met with the coaches and did extra work in the weight room and did extra work on the ice. It was a pretty remarkable change she made from sophomore year to really senior year and then the next year and on to the 2010 Olympic team.”

Yeah, mental toughness.

“It was a rude awakening and some people can’t handle that stuff,” Jones said. “Kacey’s got the mental toughness and she’s got the right people supporting her and it’s a testament to her and her character and the work she put in. She’s one of the best. A very solid defenseman with great speed and great vision and very good hands and she’s extremely offensive. ... She’s a special kid. She’s beyond driven.”

Bobby Butler

John Butler came to town to be there for the news – good or not so good – and to offer his support either way.

Tony Granato, coach of the U.S. Men’s Olympic hockey team, called and said he was coming to Milwaukee to watch Bobby Butler play for the Admirals of the American Hockey League as a final piece of evaluation for selection for the team going to South Korea.

John Butler headed down to practice the next day. Bobby skated over to his Dad near the bench and delivered the official news: Bobby had been picked for the team and was going to the Olympics.

Perhaps you saw the video. Many did when the clip of the father and son from Massachusetts – embracing in celebration of a joyous moment – went viral.

“A person from communications was right there and took it with a phone,” said Bobby Butler, a high-scoring forward. “They asked if they could use it for media and I said sure. I never thought it would blow up as much as it did. My phone was blowing up with messages for a couple of days.”

UNH coach Dick Umile loved it.

“It’s exciting news,” Umile said shortly after the team was announced on New Year’s Day. “I watched the video again on CNN this morning. Bobby Butler and his dad. It was kind of cool. It’s awesome that we’ve got two players in Kacey Bellamy and Bobby Butler representing University of New Hampshire hockey.”

Butler graduated in 2010 with a degree in health management and policy after a tremendous senior year. He was Hockey East’s Player of the Year in 2010, was one of the nation’s leading scorers and was one of three finalists for the Hobey Baker Award that goes to the best player in Division I.

Butler has been a professional player since and has played in 130 National Hockey League games with four different teams. The last couple of years he’s played in the international Kontinental Hockey League.

He opted to sign an American Hockey League contract with the Admirals this year, which left him eligible to be selected for the Olympics and he heard last summer that he was on a long list of players who would be under consideration.

Butler played well for the Admirals. He’s one of the leading scorers in the league and scored his 21st goal on Tuesday night. Next stop, South Korea.

The Olympians won’t have much time to prepare together for their first game against Slovenia on Wednesday, Feb. 14.

“I think we have practice for the first time as a full team on (Feb. 9),” Butler said. “We’re going to have five practices and will get to know each other over dinners and lunches, which will be good. Hockey guys are a different breed. I think we’ll get to know each other faster than you’d think. It should be fun. Obviously, we’re there to get ready and for business.”

Quickly, the Games will begin.

“It’s pretty crazy,” Butler said. “It’s a great opportunity to be a part of something special. It’s a pretty cool honor to be on the team and get a chance to play.”

(Allen Lessels can be reached at Allen.Lessels@unh.edu or on Twitter @UNHInsider.)