Olympic hero Maddie Rooney on inspiring young athletes, meeting celebrities: 'It hasn't hit me yet'

ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- The line stretched from the entryway to the NHL Stadium Series fanfest, across an area the size of a dusty football field, to a small tent that housed several Olympic heroes. Some fans clad in Toronto Maple Leafs and Washington Capitals jerseys, some clad in an entirely different kind of uniform at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, some old enough to remember the Miracle on Ice, many too young to remember Nagano, they began gathering 90 minutes before the U.S. Olympic women's hockey players were due to arrive for autographs and pictures and a chance for admirers to ogle the new hardware around their necks.

Those gold medals are an extraordinary achievement, but also an easily quantifiable one. Their weight can be measured in everything from ounces to the monetary spoils of victory. But there are other achievements for these athletes that are harder to calculate.

Maddie Rooney could see it on the faces of the young goalies she has met during the past week, at a clinic at the Capitals' training facility and then at the autograph session in Annapolis: Thanks to one game, and a handful of instant-classic saves, she has become the 20-year-old source of motivation for a generation of athletes.

"To even fathom that, that I could inspire someone like that ... it hasn't hit me yet that I could do that," she told ESPN on Saturday, nine days after winning gold in Pyeongchang in a 3-2 shootout victory over archrival Canada. "I almost, like, fangirl them when I meet them. I'm like, 'Wow, you think about that about me?!"

Well, they do. Who doesn't? The 20-year-old goalie was instrumental in helping the Americans win gold for the first time in 20 years. She maintains that it was a team effort, and no doubt it was. But her teammates point to her serene, enthusiastic approach as a key in that victory. As well as some incredible stops against Canada, like her miraculous overtime save on Rebecca Johnston.

"I didn't see her shooting until the last second. In that moment you have to make a desperation save. Just get a piece of it. I didn't know I hit it at first," Rooney says, with a laugh. "I thought it hit the post until I saw it."

Saves like her thwarting of Team USA archvillain Marie-Philip Poulin in the shootout. Stops like that last, "golden save" on Canada's Meghan Agosta.

"I've watched the celebration about 50 times. It's just awesome," says Rooney, who stopped 29 of the Canadians' 31 shots in regulation and overtime before turning back four of six in the shootout. "But when I replay it in my head, I picture the save. Then I picture the bench, and seeing my teammates sprinting at me. And then everything going dark under the dogpile. It's an indescribable moment."

Her teammates can describe it, actually: surprisingly inevitable, given Rooney's comportment before the shootout.

Team USA captain Meghan Duggan, 30, has represented the U.S. in three Olympic tournaments and has played for Team USA for the past decade. She still marvels at how someone so young looked like a veteran in South Korea.

"Maddie played like she's been on the team for 10 years. So calm. Composed. Confident back there. I looked at her before the shootout. She had her helmet up and was having water. Huge smile on her face," says Duggan, a forward. "In a moment like that, for a 20-year-old kid to play the way she did? So proud of her."

That confidence has been honed since Rooney was 9 years old, when she made the switch from skater to goalie. She played with and against boys' teams throughout her youth and high school careers in Andover, Minnesota.

"I wanted to get the ultimate challenge," she said. "Faster release, faster pace of the game, more physical."

Rooney went on to play for the University of Minnesota-Duluth, where she has starred for two seasons and where she helped make her case for the national team. Rooney was 25-7-5 last season for UMD, with six shutouts and a save percentage of .942.

Confidence can manifest itself in many ways for an athlete. Some have swagger. Some have that steely "eye-of-the-tiger" intensity. But that's not Rooney. In Rooney, it manifests as ... well, as pure joy.

Rooney's favorite NHL goalie is Marc-Andre Fleury of the Vegas Golden Knights, and it's not difficult to see the parallels between them. The manner in which Fleury has carried himself through adversity -- remaining a beam of sunshine even after playoff disappointments or frustrating losses or being jettisoned to an expansion team -- defines him. He lifts his teammates with his play and his attitude. Rooney did the same for the U.S. Olympic team. Whatever tension her teammates felt as the gold-medal game went to a shootout against Canada, Rooney undercut it by flashing that huge grin before the shootout and, as Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson notes, during it.

"She was smiling during the shootout. Giving us all a sense of calmness," says the Team USA forward of Rooney.

Lamoureux's brilliant shootout goal will go down as one of the most important moments in U.S. hockey history. But without Rooney's subsequent save, it's a footnote lost in a bigger narrative, like what Melodie Daoust's Peter Forsberg impression in the shootout became when Canada lost.

Whether or not it was wishful thinking, Lamoureux knew that Rooney was going to turn her shootout goal into a medal winner.

"After I scored, I knew Maddie was going to stop it. I threw my stick to the back of the bench when I got back to it, I was so confident," she says.

Rooney, meanwhile, saw that support emanating from her teammates. "Everyone on my bench was jumping up and down, pointing at me, saying 'one more,'" she says.

She saved one more shot, swept the puck away with her glove and sparked a wild celebration.

Lamoureux has contemplated why it was different this time for the Americans against Canada, which had defeated Team USA in the past two gold-medal games and had won the past four Olympic tournaments. One of the main factors: "rookies" like Rooney, who hadn't been devastated by those crushing losses to the Canadians, who never once had a sense of "here-we-go-again" dread when things turned sour. They were free of baggage. They didn't know any better.

"A lot of our first-timers have never lost to Canada in a major tournament. They show up to tournaments, and they're ready to go. They haven't experienced that," Lamoureux said.

But in Rooney's case, it's something beyond her naivete toward Canadian dominance. It's that calmness. It's that enthusiasm. It's all the emotions she embodied that, as a goalie, lent a confidence to her team in the gold-medal game.

"You can't teach that. I don't think she understands what a big deal that is," Lamoureux said.

It's all a big deal. And Rooney is trying to understand it.

Her life is now an escalating series of surreal moments.

Less that two weeks ago, Maddie Rooney won a gold medal. "Lately I've been wearing it 24/7 during this media tour, but I don't know why any of us would want to take them off. It's the best feeling," she says.

During the media tour, Rooney met Ellen DeGeneres, as the team appeared together on her show. "To see, and meet, her was really cool," Rooney says.

On Saturday, Rooney and her teammates were guests of honor at the NHL Stadium Series game between the Maple Leafs and the Capitals, drawing a long ovation from the sellout crowd at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium after they were introduced after the second period. Rooney got one of the biggest cheers during player introductions. "It's awesome. I watch these every year. The emotions I have are indescribable," she said.

Then there was her most surprising congratulatory note, from another goalie she idolizes: Hope Solo of the U.S. women's national soccer team, a team of particular interest to Rooney.

After all, the USWNT's World Cup success inspired countless young athletes to play and follow soccer, and elevated the game in the eyes of even the sport's most caustic critics.

Rooney hopes that this gold medal does the same for women's hockey.

"That's always been the goal. Grow the game. Develop the youth," she says. "Doing what soccer has done would be incredible, and to give kids the same opportunity kids have had in soccer would be awesome."

Rooney is now an important part of that future.

"Take age out of it -- she was the best goalie in the tournament," Lamoureux says. "But as a 20-year-old, she's just going to continue to get better."

Rooney has two years left in college, where she will attempt to exist as a normal student seeking a business degree who just so happens to be an Olympic women's hockey legend. She will undoubtedly be in position to start for the Americans in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. Opportunities to play professionally in the National Women's Hockey League or Canadian Women's Hockey League will beckon. "The pro league isn't on my mind, yet, but I want to play as long as possible. So it might be," she says.

A month ago, meeting Ellen and getting a standing ovation at an NHL outdoor game weren't on her mind, either. Now they're the new normal for Maddie Rooney. So are the fans who ask for selfies with her, the pro athletes who laud her achievements and the young players who tell her she has become their inspiration -- even if Rooney still can't fathom it.

"I don't see myself as that yet. It hasn't hit me, really," she says. "But it would be awesome if I could be as nice to someone as the older players were to me when I was younger."

But you are an inspiration. But you beat Canada. You won gold.

C'mon, for a certain generation of athletes, you're basically Jim Craig.

"No, I'm not Jim Craig," Rooney says, laughing at the comparison to the U.S. goalie who made miracles happen 17 years before she was born -- and exactly 38 years to the day before her gold-medal turn. "But he followed me on Twitter, and I'm really pumped about that."