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Smith Puzo living 'two lives' as mother, U.S. field hockey player

Keli Smith Puzo ran out of options early last month.

Her 9-month-old son, Ian, had a highly contagious virus, and her babysitter was incapacitated with the stomach flu. More than 2,000 miles from friends and family, the U.S. women's field hockey forward had no one else to take care of her two young boys. For the first time during her four-month stay in San Diego training with the national team, she would have to miss practice.

It was a trying day for the 33-year-old Smith Puzo. After all, she is a dutiful teammate. She didn't want any special treatment, to feel as though she were putting her personal concerns above the group.

But then she had a pivotal realization: It's more important to be a mother to her two sons, Ian and 21/2-year-old Xavi, than it is to be an athlete.

An 11-year national team veteran and Maryland alum, Smith Puzo has twice put her international field hockey career on hold since competing at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

Now, less than a year removed from the birth of her second son, she is ready to prove that motherhood doesn't necessarily need to end a world-class athletic career. This August in London, she is determined to help U.S. women's field hockey capture its first Olympic medal since 1984.

"I think she's really a good inspiration for field hockey in this country," said Maryland's Missy Meharg, a close friend and Smith Puzo's former college coach. "I think a lot of women probably see those two lives, of starting a family and having children, and then you just stop playing."

And for a while, Smith Puzo did as well. Her excitement was tempered when she learned she was pregnant with Ian in January 2011. She figured her career was done, that the pregnancy was nature's way of telling her it was time to retire.

Her husband, Iñako Puzo, wasn't so sure. A former Venezuelan national field hockey team member, Puzo understands the sport as well as he knows his wife. He told her to wait, to give it some more thought before making a decision.

Two weeks later, Smith Puzo reported to training camp in California to prepare for the Four Nations tournament in Argentina. While there, she clued in coach Lee Bodimeade, who told her to "hold on." He wanted her to compete in South America before going on maternity leave, and then see whether she felt ready for a comeback.

And that's exactly what she did. After helping the United States to a second-place finish in Argentina, Smith Puzo — who was three months' pregnant at the time — returned home to get ready for a late-summer birth.

She was careful not to put too much pressure on herself. She trained when she could, worked out until she started feeling uncomfortable and tried to keep the door open for a possible return.

That patient approach hardly changed when Smith Puzo gave birth to Ian on Aug. 31, 2011. She spent the first six weeks of post-pregnancy focused on letting her body heal, on regaining her equilibrium.

The Selinsgrove, Pa., native gradually began returning to the gym and joined the team for training in December. She finally started feeling that her legs were back underneath her and decided to play competitively again in mid-January.

The results were immediate.

Smith Puzo scored both of the United States' goals in her first international game back from maternity leave, a 2-2 tie against Australia on Jan. 14. With it becoming increasingly clear that she was in position to secure one of the 16 spots on this summer's Olympic squad, Smith Puzo decided to make a full-time commitment to the team.

But she wasn't about to let her responsibilities to her teammates infringe upon her duties as a mother.

"It's the kids and playing, or I retire," Smith Puzo said. "They're either with me or I don't want to continue."

So in late January, she moved into a San Diego-area apartment with her two sons while she trained with the national team. Her husband stayed behind in Oxford, Ohio, where he settled into his new job as the women's field hockey coach at Miami (Ohio).

For the next four months, Smith Puzo's hours were filled with dirty diapers, grueling workouts and restless nights.

A typical day started with a groggy Smith Puzo slapping her alarm clock at 5:30 a.m. She would whip up some breakfast before dropping the kids off at a former Maryland player's house, then make the hourlong trek to the team's training facility in Chula Vista, Calif. Practices usually lasted from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., and she would try to spend a few hours with Ian and Xavi before putting them to bed around 7:30 p.m. A crying Ian would wake her up four or five times throughout the night, and the routine would start all over again.

"With her schedule being as hectic as it is, you know, still putting the team first, it's crazy," said Katie O'Donnell, who will likely start on the forward line alongside Smith Puzo in London. "A lot of us look at her and are like, 'We're struggling. Our bodies hurt. I don't know how you are doing this.' "

Smith Puzo contends that she was rarely tired during that more than 16-week stretch in California. She operated on autopilot, allowing her adrenaline to carry her through most days.

And in the especially difficult moments — when the balancing act seemed too tough to handle, when the combined weight of her responsibilities began to bear down on her broad shoulders — Smith Puzo kept perspective.

This, after all, is a family dream. It's not just about competing in the Olympics. It's about her entire family sharing in that experience. It's about her two young sons having a story they'll be able to tell their grandchildren.

"I think it's hard and she does it, of course, for herself," Iñako Puzo said. "But she also does it for us. She does it for her kids, for me, for her parents. She knows that this is important in some level for everybody, all the members of her family."

Smith Puzo has lofty aspirations for London. She envisions stepping onto the medal podium and feels gold is within reach.

But right now, that is hardly her chief concern. She intends to live in the moment, to enjoy what could be the final days of an enduring career.

"You can play pickup soccer when you're 40, but you can't play at this level forever," Smith Puzo said. "So just knowing that it's going to end at some point brings you back to the reality that you might as well enjoy it while you still can."

cletourneau@baltsun.com

twitter.com/connorletournea

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