By Brian Heyman
PEARL RIVER — Excitement creased the faces of more than 260 kids, standing, clapping and cheering, filling the St. Margaret School gym with happy noise for the guest of honor at this assembly, the woman at the lectern in front of the stage who used to be just like them way back when.
Then came the chants from these students, some as young as 3 in pre-K, some as old as 14 in eighth grade, some holding signs in her honor or American flags.
“U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A …”
Josephine Pucci had come back to speak Friday, back to the school she attended from kindergarten through eighth grade. This was where the 23-year-old player from Pearl River and St. Margaret’s Class of 2005 once dreamed about becoming an Olympic hockey player. And now she is one, set to fly to Sochi, Russia, on Feb. 1, ready to play defense, hoping to strike gold.
“You guys are awesome,” she said. “I can’t tell you how honored I am to be here. Just walking into the hallway brings back so many memories. When you guys stood up, I can’t even believe I was that small at one time.”
There was a poster of Pucci to her right, a table of pictures featuring her to the left and her smiling face with a “Good Luck in Sochi, Russia” message on a banner hanging from the blue curtain behind her.
Pucci wanted to leave these children with some inspirational messages. She spoke about not always being the perfect student, or playing poorly at times in youth hockey, or not playing much at times in CYO basketball.
“The people who get what they want are the people who bounce back from these situations, who aren’t discouraged, but they’re motivated and they work harder,” Pucci told them.
If anyone knows about having to bounce back from adverse situations, it’s Pucci. She told her inspirational story, a story about a third concussion that forced her to drop out of Harvard early in the fall semester of 2012 and come back home to recover from the considerable aftershocks, surrounded by her supportive family. She overcame the problem and made the Olympic team, officially announced Jan. 1 at the NHL’s Winter Classic.
After her speech, she took questions. A cute, little 7-year-old named Bridget Carr raised her hand.
“How long did you dream of being a famous hockey player?” Carr asked.
Pucci answered about the progression. But she also said: “If you’re doing something because you enjoy doing it, it’s OK if you don’t reach that dream in the end because the journey was worth it if it’s something that you love to do.”
The second-grader from Pearl River had a follow-up, only it wasn’t another question.
“If I were to pick a role model, I would pick you,” Carr told her, “because I think you’re the best and most honest person I’ve ever met.”
Pucci smiled, touched by the moment. Following the Q&A, Carr waited with others to meet her and had Pucci autograph the drawing Carr made with “USA 1st” written on it. Then the girl reached out and gave her idol a hug.
“It was just like my mind blew into a thousand pieces that I just met her,” Carr said.
Emmet Moore got a thrill, too, having Pucci sign his T-shirt. The sixth-grader from Chestnut Ridge said: “I feel that because she’s an alum of the school that the whole school should be honored. She has created so many ways that we can follow her. I feel honored.”
Her old social studies teacher had introduced her to the crowd and grew emotional at times.
“I can’t say I’m surprised by her success,” Mary Mulderrig said later. “I’m just happy for it. She was always diligent.”
Come Sunday at 1, Pucci will be selling commemorative T-shirts at T.F. Noonan’s pub in Pearl River to help fund her family’s trip to watch her in Sochi. The school plans to gather everyone in the gym again at 8:30 a.m. Feb. 12 to watch her and Team USA face archrival Team Canada on a big screen.
“We’re all unbelievably excited,” said Carolyn Slattery, St. Margaret’s principal since 2008. “It’s been one of the nicest things to happen in my tenure here. This is a student who actually achieved her dreams. We’re just very proud of her.”