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Tar Heel Olympians: Karen Shelton wins bronze in her playing days

Legendary UNC field hockey had a playing career before becoming the champion coach she is today.

2020 NCAA Division I Women’s Field Hockey Championship Photo by Grant Halverson/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

The Olympics are underway, and 10 Tar Heels are competing in Tokyo in various events, for various countries. In honor of the games, throughout the whole of the summer leading up and during them, we’ll be digging into the history books to profile some Tar Heels of the past who competed at the Olympics.

Today, Karen Shelton is rightfully known as North Carolina and field hockey legend. Since become Tar Heel field hockey coach, she’s led UNC to nine national championships, including the last three. Last season, she became the winningest NCAA field hockey coach of all time. Carolina also bestowed the honor of naming the stadium where the team plays after her. She’s had a remarkable career in Chapel Hill.

Said coaching career has gotten her inducted into various Halls of Fame. However, before she coached a single game, she had another whole Hall of Fame career as a field hockey player. It was one that took her to one (and should’ve been two) Olympic games.

In college, Shelton had a legendary playing career at West Chester State, where she was three times named national player of the year. While there, she was also a part of three national championship winning teams in the AIAW days. before the NCAA sponsored women’s sports.

It was a career that made her a regular player for the US national team, including their run at the 1984 Olympics. She appeared in all five games, as the US went 2-2-1, finishing tied for third in the six-team round robin tournament. After finishing tied in every category with Australia, they competed in a shootout against them for bronze, with the US coming out on top and taking the medal. That remains the only time a US women’s field hockey team has won an Olympic medal.

It’s a genuinely great thing that Shelton got to compete at won a medal in ‘84 considering what she missed out on four years earlier.

Shelton was also picked for the roster for the US field hockey team for the 1980 Olympics, which was the first at which a women’s field hockey event was taking place. However, if you know your history, you’re probably aware that the games were being held in Moscow, and the US decided to boycott those games. Shelton, field hockey, and the rest of the US delegation did go over to compete that year.

All of the US Olympians who were supposed to take part were awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor and took part in a parade on the National Mall, but it still probably wasn’t the same as competing in the Olympics.

In the years since, Shelton has gone on to be an immensely successful coach at UNC. Plenty of players she’s coached at Carolina have gone on to compete in Olympic field hockey tournaments themselves. Considering how great her and the Tar Heel program are still doing, there will probably be more in the future too.