01/14/2002 at 01:00 AM EST
A few years ago Julie Chu's family made a pact: If Julie landed a spot on the Olympic ice hockey team, her parents and two siblings would get tattoos celebrating her accomplishment. "It's something we promised her," says Chu's father, Wah. "We have a commitment."
Let's hope no one in the family is afraid of needles. Last month Chu secured her place on the 20-member U.S. women's Olympic hockey team, making the 19-year-old the first Asian-American to achieve that honor. Competing in the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, where the United States and Canada will be the gold-medal favorites, "is like going into a dreamland," she says, before noting, "There is still a lot of work to be done."
Spoken like a true overachiever—one who had to resign as high school student-body president and defer admission to Harvard in order to heed the Olympic call. Part jock, part brain, part puckish teen, Chu, who plays forward, "is one of those rare kids who has tremendous on-ice awareness and can see things before they happen," says Ben Smith, coach of the U.S. women's team.
Chu still recalls being inspired by the success of the U.S. women's team at the 1998 Nagano Games, the first year women's hockey became an Olympic sport. At the time a freshman on the women's hockey team at Choate Rosemary Hall in Walling-ford, Conn., she watched that squad's gold-medal-winning game against Canada on television in awe with her teammates. "Our jaws just dropped," recalls Chu, who is still contemplating which major to choose when she enrolls at Harvard next fall, "because we thought, 'It's there, it's possible.' "
For Chu, the daughter of Wah, 50, a management consultant, and Miriam, 51, a daycare worker, almost anything seems possible. The youngest of three siblings—Richard, 23, is a Boston-based marketing specialist, and Christina, 21, attends Fairfield University in Connecticut—Chu grew up in Fairfield, where at age 8 "she got interested playing floor hockey in our basement," says Richard. "We'd go down and fire pucks around."
At the local ice rink, her parents enlisted Julie in the more girl-friendly sport of figure skating. Still, "my eyes kept peering down to the ice hockey end," she says. Besides, she could never get the graceful leaps of figure skating down cold. "The bunny hop was the death of me," she says with a laugh. "I couldn't do it." After making the switch to hockey, Chu—Chuey to her pals—played on boys' teams for several seasons. "I was always the tallest by a head or two," she says. That changed at age 15, when Chu (now 5'8") was suddenly up against boys who were far larger. While the women's rules call for only limited contact, men's hockey is a knockdown, drag-out affair. "It came to a point where I was wondering, 'Is it worth getting injured?' " she says. "You can only dodge so many hits."
She made the move to women's hockey, and two years ago won a spot on the national team. Still, the decision to leave Choate—where Chu had captained the soccer, hockey and softball teams, helped start a fund-raising group called Choate Against Hunger and, in her a spare time, won the election for student-body president—in order to train with the U.S. squad was a tough one. "I've always thought that if you make a commitment you go wholeheartedly at it," she says. Ultimately she chose to study with a tutor during her training in Lake Placid, N.Y., last fall before returning to Choate in the spring to graduate with her class.
One month later, Chu's Olympic dream was nearly derailed when a car slammed into her SUV in Quincy, Mass. "I rolled about four times," says Chu, who, amazingly, escaped unharmed. She was soon back on the ice, and in August the women's national team launched a 39-game pre-Olympic schedule. First stop: Beijing, China, where Chu—who speaks a little Cantonese—documented the visit for her paternal grandmother, Lai Fong, who emigrated from Hong Kong in 1968 and has never seen the Great Wall. "She was so thrilled she could bring the videos home to her grandmother," says team trainer Maria Hutsick.
Naturally, Grandma is one of Chu's biggest fans. "I try to be at every game possible," says Lai Fong, 76, with son Wah interpreting. But will she also be joining the rest of the family at the tattoo parlor when they get their still-to-be-designed body art? "We didn't even ask her—at 76, I don't think she'd be interested," says Miriam. "Just her cheering will be good enough."
Chu is hoping her grandmother will have plenty to cheer about next month. Entering the Salt Lake City rink for the first time in October, "I stood on the ice and thought, 'This is it. I get it now,' " she recalls. "That one sheet of ice is the stage of my dreams."
Tom Duffy in Lake Placid