SOCHI, Russia – Jessica Lutz is your neighborhood barista. The one with the wide smile. The one who knows your drink before you order it every morning. At least that’s how the patrons of The Coffee Bar DC knew her when she steamed milk and brewed java for bleary-eyed Washingtonians.
“People love coffee. Your local barista … everyone can relate to her,” said Lutz, 24.
Here’s something else relatable about Lutz: Her desire to be an Olympian. It’s been her life’s goal since she was scoring goals as a youth hockey player near her home in Rockville, Md.; and this month in Sochi, that Olympic dream comes true.
But not with Team USA.
With the Swiss national women’s hockey team.
Lutz was born in Switzerland, and her father has dual citizenship. She lives in America, is attending classes at Marymount University, but will wear the red cross of the Swiss in the Sochi women’s hockey tournament – including on Feb. 10 against Team USA.
Isn’t representing another country in a game against the nation she’s called home for most of her life a little … awkward?
Not really, said Lutz.
“I haven’t thought about it that much. On the ice, I guess it’s what you have to do. In the end it’s a hockey game. We want to win,” she said.
“We played them in the world championships last year. I played against some of them growing up, but not with any of them. So that probably helps.”
But doesn’t that drive to win require her ignoring her patriotism? Her love of stars, stripes, bald eagles, apple pie and a dozen other American clichés?
“I’ve been going to Switzerland since birth. It’s a part of me, whether on the ice or off,” she said.
Under different circumstances, Lutz would have worn the red, white and blue in Sochi rather the red and white. But she had the blessing and the curse of growing up playing hockey in the U.S., where the women’s game is popular enough to have a competitive pool of players being monitored early in their careers.
Lutz, a Washington Capitals fan, saw her first hockey game at five years old. She started playing when she was nine. Her first team was all female, playing against teams of boys, because there weren’t enough girls to fill out a second roster.
By the time she was 12, Lutz had decided her dream was to play hockey in the Winter Olympics. But as she reached high school at Washington Christian Academy, it became apparent that despite her talent, she wasn’t in the USA Hockey pipeline like many of her peers.
“I knew I wasn’t one of the top players that was being scouted and recruited. It wasn’t realistic to make the U.S. team,” said Lutz, a 5-8 forward.
Her coach in high school was Christian Yngve, former head coach of Sweden’s women’s national team. Yngve suggested there might be another path to the Olympics for Lutz. He knew she had dual citizenship with Switzerland. He also knew the Swiss coaches.
So at 21, after three seasons at U-Conn, Lutz moved to her native land and began working toward making the Swiss Olympic team for the 2014 Sochi Games.
Women’s hockey is far less popular in Switzerland than it is in the U.S., where it remains an Olympic niche sport in the shadow of men’s hockey, despite the Americans medaling each Winter Games since the event’s inception in 1998. She said many in Switzerland don’t even realize they have a women’s national team, or women’s teams in general.
Lutz played for Swiss club DHC Lagenthal for two seasons and then EV Bomo, playing well enough to put her on the path to making the Swiss roster.
But as Lutz told NPR, it was difficult finding work in Switzerland. Her bachelor’s degree in health sciences was not accepted. She missed her friends back in the States.
She moved back to the U.S. last March, getting that barista job after working at a coffee shop in Switzerland. It was a morning gig that allowed her to train later in the day.
The hard work paid off: Lutz was formally named to the Swiss Olympic team last month.
She said her friends have given her playful grief for her decision to play against the U.S. in Sochi, but that she hasn’t had a moment of regret. “It hasn’t been all that tough. I always loved Switzerland growing up,” she said.
Next week, Lutz will be an American suiting up to help defeat the Americans. Is there a chance for an upset? The Swiss aren’t in the same class with Team USA and Canada, the two superpowers that pummeled opponents to the point where the IIHF reformatted its Olympic tournament to reduce the number of blowout games. But the Swiss did win bronze in the 2012 World Championships, which was their first medal in that tournament.
A Swiss win is a long shot against the U.S., which is one reason why Lutz hasn’t dwelled on fantasy scenarios involving her scoring a game-winning goal or other heroism.
But if she was able to send American’s best women’s hockey players to defeat?
“I would love that for some reason,” said Lutz.
“I’m on the Swiss team. I play for the Swiss team. It doesn’t matter who the opponent is. I want to score. I want to win.”
The hockey-playing barista, whose cup overflows with determination. It wasn’t the most traditional path to the Olympics, but Jessica Lutz has realized her dream – and come to terms with her duality.
“Part of me is Swiss. Part of me is American. Neither one ever goes away.”