Harvard women’s hockey forward Julie Chu retired from figure skating pretty much before she’d begun. At the tender age of 8, when she was still finding her balance on the ice, Chu opted instead for the rigors of the puck and stick. It proved to be a sage decision. Since swapping out the patterned twirls and regimented routines of figure skating for hockey’s speed and inventiveness, Chu has pretty much gone where she pleases.
While most athletes must trudge through the different levels of competition — from youth programs to high school to college and then, hopefully, on to the semi-professional, professional, or international circuits — Chu has parlayed her supreme athleticism and outstanding vision on the ice into something of a free pass.
An Olympic veteran prior to her arrival at Harvard, Chu helped the Crimson turn out three consecutive NCAA title game appearances during her tenure. Along the way, she’s collected Ivy League accolades of every stripe, a second Olympic medal, and most recently, women’s hockey’s version of the Heisman Trophy, the coveted Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award. What’s most remarkable, she’s done so by honoring a team philosophy seldom matched by “star” players (one suspects you don’t get 196 assists, a Harvard record, any other way).
“The thing about hockey is it’s so interactive on so many levels,” explains Chu, the co-Ivy League player of year. “You really can’t have one person just dominant out there. At this level especially — college and national — you have to have a well-rounded team. Everyone plays their role and everyone plays their part and it has to be everyone in it with the mentality of ‘Let’s do what’s best for the team.’ That’s really what’s going to get us far, both individually and as a team.”
A native of Fairfield, Conn., Chu began her quick ascent as a high school junior at Choate Rosemary Hall when she was invited to train with the U.S. team in preparation for the World Championships. Just 17 years old, Chu — then an accomplished athlete participating in both boys’ and girls’ programs — spent weeks competing among her idols. And though she was ultimately cut from the team, the experience opened her eyes to the possibility of playing on the sport’s biggest stage. “Wow,” Chu recalls thinking as a teenager, “I really have a chance to compete with these guys.”
The following year, in 2001, Chu was invited back to train with the team, forcing her to take two terms off from Choate. This time around, Chu made the squad — then gearing up for the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City — to become the team’s first woman of Asian descent, and at just 18 years old, one of its youngest members.
In joining Team USA, she was forced to defer her enrollment to Harvard until fall 2002. It was a decision that ultimately paid huge dividends for Chu, who, in addition to traveling the world on pre-Olympic tours (competing in China and throughout North America), also won silver in Salt Lake City. She found the opportunity to compete for her country, in her country, a particularly moving experience. “I was on cloud nine,” Chu recalled.
In fall 2002, freshman Chu joined a talent-stacked Harvard squad featuring Jennifer Botterill ’03 (of the 2002 gold medal-winning Canadian team) and Angela Ruggiero ’04 of Team USA. Among these more experienced luminaries, Chu immediately made an impact with the Crimson — and on collegiate hockey in general. As a rookie, she was second in the nation in scoring with 42 goals and 51 assists en route to earning Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference and Ivy rookie of the year honors. After falling to Minnesota-Duluth 4-3 in double overtime in the NCAA championship game, Chu and company went on to compete, in vain, in the national title game over the next two seasons. Obviously disappointed with the results, Chu didn’t dwell on the team’s failed bid for a title. “Whether we won or lost, whatever our final results were … we just want to enjoy the process.”
Harvard sorely missed Chu’s productivity during its 2005-06 campaign, when the rising senior again reported for duty with the red, white, and blue for the Olympic Games in Torino, Italy. With Chu off the roster, the Crimson failed to make its fourth-straight NCAA title game appearance, finishing a relatively disappointing 18-13-4. In Italy, meanwhile, Chu tallied a pair of assists as the U.S. downed Finland in the bronze-medal contest.
Wrapping up her career in third place on the Crimson’s career-scoring chart, Chu (who led all Division 1 players this past season with 1.6 assists per game) is now training for the 2010 Games in Vancouver. Whether that’s with a Women’s National Hockey League franchise in Canada or the one in Minnesota, she’s still sorting out. And after the Games, this hockey-lifer and psychology concentrator aspires to coach.
“I wish I could stay here forever,” Chu says about Harvard, citing the phenomenal training facilities, coaching staff, and of course, its team. Yet for the mobile, independent Chu, one suspects that wherever she goes, “forever” might get a little old.