"It's a vulnerable position as an athlete because you can be exposed," said U.S. coach Lee Bodimeade. "It's taking a step back to take three steps forward. She did that, and now those perceived weaknesses - I don't even want to call them weaknesses - but those areas of improvement required are now her strengths. Had she come in as a 16-year-old and stayed in the team, I don't think we'd have the athlete that we do today."
Nobody had written her off. The idea, Bodimeade said, was that O'Donnell needed to hone her skills at the college level. O'Donnell didn't think she was a last cut in 2008, coming off her freshman year at Maryland. She wasn't shocked not to make it. Still . . .
"It made me work 10 times harder than I probably would have if I had made it," O'Donnell said. "I probably wasn't at the level I needed to be. I really did put blood, sweat, and tears onto the field."
Every day - "probably twice a day'' - O'Donnell said, she spent extra time working on her offensive game.
"My coach would literally feed my goals in the circle. I'd smack them as hard as I could at times to get out the frustration and other times work on technique," O'Donnell said. "Probably for two or three years."
"She really did get back to identifying what she needed to get better at," Bodimeade said. "Obviously being a striker, that involves elimination speed and scoring goals. Those are the traits she's very good at."
After O'Donnell led Maryland to the 2010 national title, the second for the Terps in her four years, she was named the 2010 Women's Sports Foundation sportswoman of the year for all team sports at every level. She has as many feints as an NBA guard, but that's not O'Donnell's best trait, said her former field hockey coach.
"See how she stands?" said University of Maryland coach Missy Meharg.
O'Donnell, competing in the recent USA Field Hockey National Championships in College Park, Md., didn't have the ball and wasn't giving any clue to which direction she'd move next. She stood perfectly balanced.
"That's her best skill," Meharg said. "We have a lot of moving forwards in this country, and they're very easy to play defense against. Odie's ability to read what's going to happen two plays ahead and just to be efficient with her movement, is unparalleled. We have a tendency in this country to say, 'Move. Keep going!' Where are you going?"
O'Donnell had just spun around a defender, put a pass on a teammate's stick, and shown a textbook field hockey version of a give-and-go.
"See that! See how she held her stick on in the interior of the field and set that girl up?" Meharg said, asked to think out loud about what she was seeing from O'Donnell on the field. "Perfect ball. See how she lifted that over that stick? . . . Watch this. Watch this. . . . She should have shot that."
Wants to be the best
Now 23, O'Donnell said that when she returned to the national team in 2010, her belief in her own ability had grown. She was on the field and scored a goal last October when the U.S. team upset Argentina, then the world's top-ranked team, in the finals of the Pan American Games, earning an automatic Olympic invite.
"The question for her and her teammates, can they do that game five times?" said Meharg, an NBC analyst for all the Olympic field hockey games. "You have to do that game five times."
Meharg always envisioned O'Donnell getting to this level.
"Even as a coach, she takes coaches to another level," Meharg said. "Her expectations and her courage to say, 'I want to be the best, and I want to be a national champion.' She has no problem saying it, which isn't a really popular thing for most women to do."
Meharg said another strength is O'Donnell's ability to not even think about hockey when she isn't on the field. She isn't endlessly replaying and analyzing her own play. "Never has and never will," Meharg said.
The flip side: "There's never a look to a sideline." Meharg said of O'Donnell in a game. "This is an intense environment in an Olympic year, and you can see so many players playing mediocre or playing with the pressure of evaluation, and she could give a damn. She's so in the game, not worried about performance."
The Argentina victory was a big upset, but the U.S. team still isn't expected to be a medal threat after finishing eighth in Beijing. The doubts don't bring pressure, O'Donnell said, more of "a fire."
Officially, her hometown is now listed as Chula Vista, Calif., training site for many of the U.S. national teams. It's the address she seemed destined for all along.
"I think I'm hanging for awhile," O'Donnell said.
Contact Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @Jensenoffcampus on Twitter.