Emerging triumphant from a down-to-the-wire victory Thursday afternoon in the Winter Olympic tournament final, against their longtime Canadian rivals, the U.S. women’s hockey team fielded questions from the press while looking basically as exhilarated and joyful as could be expected from such a win.
Occasionally while one of them was giving an answer, a big smile would break across their face.
“I hope women’s hockey grows, I hope it explodes in the next few years,” Team USA hockey forward Hilary Knight told reporters. “That’s obviously one of our goals when we’re off the ice is to grow and promote the game and try and inspire the next generation as best we can and build a future for them even better than what was before.”
The gold medal game, in Gangneung, South Korea, (which aired early Thursday morning stateside) was the latest installment in the recurring rivalry for first place between the American women and their northern neighbors.
Since women’s ice hockey was introduced at the Olympics in 1998, the two teams have played each other for the gold in five of those six Games. Until Thursday, the U.S. had come up short in all but the first, including back-to-back losses in 2010 and 2014.
The 2018 win came at the very last possible moment, after Canada overtook the U.S.’s 1-0 lead with two goals before a successful late-game shot by the U.S. sent them into overtime.
A shootout followed that scoreless extra period and the U.S. ultimately came out on top, 3-2, thanks to a successful fake-out shot from forward Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson.
Goalie Maddie Rooney then blocked the Canadians’ last shot in the shootout, clinching the win.
“To be able to come away with a win, to win from behind like we did, is something special,” said Monique Lamoureux-Morando, Jocelyne’s twin sister and her fellow forward. “We played this game in our minds a thousand times and won it every single way possible, and there’s just something unbelievable with this team.”
“We just knew we were going to get it done,” she said, “and [I’m] so proud of everybody on this team and it’s indescribable how happy it is to be an Olympic champion. It’s a title that no one can take away from us.”
Forward Gigi Marvin put it this way: “Our opponent is never the other team we’re facing, it’s always the doubt, and I think the bigger thing is just the doubt and the fear. And so we were able to push everything away — up 1-nothing, then give up two goals, tie it, then we’re in a shootout.
“How many opportunities do you have to mentally just kind of cave? And we didn’t. We just crushed the fear and crushed the doubt and just trusted in what was to come.”
The team did not second guess that this moment would come, many of them said, but now that it was here they were indulging in it, the first Olympic gold for American women’s hockey in 20 years.
“We’re so resilient, we have such an amazing group,” Marvin, 30, said after the win. “And you know, it didn’t matter if you’re a veteran and three-time Olympian or if you’re a rookie — I mean, holy cow, Maddie Rooney [was] unbelievable in the nets, it really doesn’t matter. We had so much faith and trust in her.”
The same was true, Marvin said, of the team’s belief in Jocelyne, 28, who explained to reporters how that last penalty shot was one she had practiced thousands of times.
A coach had nicknamed it “Oops, I did it again,” after the Britney Spears song, she said.
“I’m digging the new necklace we got today and [I’m] going to keep it on for a while, then I’ll find a safe spot at home,” Jocelyne jokingly told PEOPLE of the victory.
The U.S. players agreed that they had no misgivings that this game would come down in their favor.
“There was no doubt at all,” forward Dani Cameranesi tells PEOPLE. “We knew this was the team to do it and no one’s done it in 20 years, and we knew that inside that locker room we had everything that we needed.”
The afternoon before they took the ice for their final game, said Cameranesi, 22, the team spoke with Cammi Granato, the captain of the gold-winning women’s Olympic team in ’98.
She told them the same thing those players then told the media, Cameranesi recalled: “We had everything that we needed in this room, we didn’t need to do anything special, we’ve been playing this game our entire lives.”
At the Games four years ago, in Sochi, Russia, the U.S. women lost 3-2 to Canada in overtime. That disappointment, the team has said, was turned into fuel.
“It’s no secret that we came up short of our ultimate goal,” captain Meghan Duggan told PEOPLE in the fall, prior to heading to Korea. “While it was both an incredible experience and really proud to be there, I think we said to a lot of people, ‘We don’t train that hard for second place.’ And that’s just our mentality — it’s gold or bust going into this one for us. We’re excited, we’re prepared. This is the group and it’s going to be an incredible journey.”
“For our players, I am so happy they get to experience something different,” Robb Stauber, the team’s head coach, said after Thursday’s win. “We had some trying times this year. You learn how to transform yourself, how you think about and perform the game. This is probably a classic example of how hard it should be to win a gold medal.”
A win at the Olympics this year was not just a win, however:
As Knight said later, it “transcended our sport specifically.” Last March, the team took the national spotlight when they said they were going to boycott the IIHF World Championship unless they received wage increases and greater support from USA Hockey, more in line with what was dedicated for the men’s national team.
Within weeks, they had struck a new deal giving them just that, according to media reports, though details of the agreement were not released to the public.
Knight, 27, told PEOPLE in the fall that the stance was necessary, calling it a “cause that’s bigger than ourselves.”
Duggan echoed that at the time, saying, “I think as powerful female athletes it was important to us at that point to really make the stand that we did.”
Flash-forward nearly 12 months and, as her team looked toward their Olympic rematch with Canada, Knight said she was still taking it all in.
“I keep sort of pinching myself,” she said earlier this week. “I mean, this is my third time going to a gold-medal game, a lot of our third times. That’s a dream come true.”
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Speaking to reporters after their victory, Knight put what they had accomplished in the context of the wage inequality they spoke out about and pushed to change.
All around was talk of the past. But there was something else to look forward to.
“We weren’t receiving the right support of a gold-medal-winning team and this is what a gold-medal-winning team looks like with the right support,” Knight said. “We’re taking steps in the right direction, but there’s still a long ways to go. But I hope that we’ve inspired other people in their own industries to do the same thing and that we continue to grow for the next generation.”
The 2018 Winter Olympics are airing live on NBC. To learn more, visit teamusa.org.