efore Olympic tryouts, before the United States U18 Team, before Boston College, for Cayla Barnes, there was roller hockey.
Barnes, at just 2 years old, waddled out to play street hockey in a pink jumpsuit, laden down with pads in a look that was reminiscent of Randy’s heavy winter wear in A Christmas Story. The getup alone was sure to induce misery in any toddler, much less one who was so small. And if she fell? Forget it. Barnes wouldn’t be playing for more than two weeks, her mother, Michelle Church, thought. But she loved it. Her brothers, with whom she would play at home, were rough with her, the oldest holding a 10-year advantage over her head. The competition in the household was fierce. Her brothers showed no mercy, throttling the puck at her. But she took it in stride, and got tough.
At a time when most kids cannot do much of anything, Barnes had already found something she loved. No, it wasn’t hockey. Don’t be silly. It was winning.
No matter the sport—basketball, soccer, lacrosse, or hockey—the girl needed to win. The skill followed, not far behind. At 4, Barnes was outplaying her peers, both male and female. She knew the game, whatever game, inside and out. A lot of kids get involved in organized sports once they have a grasp on certain motor skills and concepts can be explained to them, and even then they’re still skating around aimlessly, wanting to be the one who scores the goal. The wheels in Barnes’ head, however, turned just a little more precisely, a little cleaner, and more technical.
“For her age, she was very advanced,” her father, Scott Barnes, said. “That’s why we ended up putting her on a boys’ team.”
With four boys to battle at home, Barnes kept up with her teammates without issue. While she played with the boys, she double-rostered with a girls’ team, the Anaheim Lady Ducks, for a number of years. Even when Barnes played well, she still struggled with defeat, and her passion for the sport led to some big emotions for the child.
During the Anaheim Lady Ducks’ run for the U12 National Championship, Barnes was sitting in the locker room, coming off a loss. Her coach went over to the 10-year-old, who was angry and crying.
“Don’t worry,” the coach said. “It’s just a game. It’ll be okay.”
Barnes picked herself up off the bench and met the coach’s eyes, no longer crying. Now it was just anger. She stomped her foot on the ground.
“It’s not just a game!” she yelled. “We’re here to win!”
"Right away, when you see her, you know she has that 'it' factor..." head coach Katie Crowley
year or two after her outburst, Barnes discovered that there was a national team for women, as well as a team for girls under 18. It was just another goal to add to the list.
“I’m gonna make that team,” she said, after thinking about it for a while. “I’m gonna make that team as a 15-year-old.”
In 2015, Barnes donned her red, white, and blue uniform alongside future BC teammates Katie Burt, Caitrin Lonergan, and Grace Bizal for the IIHF U18 Women’s Championship. The team won the gold medal against Canada on Jan. 12—five days after Barnes became a newly-minted 16-year-old, the only 1999 birthday on the roster. She did it again the next year and the year after that. USA Hockey says she is the only person to win three consecutive gold medals in its history.
Her last U18 competition came with an added honor—the captainship under BC associate head coach Courtney Kennedy. The role had some unique challenges this year, as the U.S. Women’s National Team was planning to boycott the IIHF World Championship due to unequal benefits with the men’s teams. Several of the senior members of the women’s team reached out to Barnes and asked if she would lead her team to the same goal—even if it meant the U18 team would not play.
Barnes came to her decision quickly. Of course, she and her teammates would stand with their older peers. Fortunately for them, they negotiated with USA Hockey and went on to win another gold medal.
“We were standing up as a united front all together,” Barnes said. “I think it was a really powerful moment for all of us.”
ut youth hockey players can’t stay on the West Coast forever. If you’re good enough or want to be, you will have to make the sacrifice of warm weather and palm trees for the frozen Midwest—Michigan, for most boys, at the U.S. National Development Team Program—or New England at a swath of prep schools for the girls.
At the end of her seventh-grade year, Barnes flew to a hockey showcase in Bedford, Mass. Her head coach, Craig Churchill, had heard from a friend about an amazing player on a boys’ team, but he hadn’t seen her yet. Once he saw Barnes on the ice, it clicked. That had to be the girl his friend had told him about. Now he just had to get her on his team.
Barnes shopped around for prep schools in the area. At the time, the New Hampton School, where Churchill coaches, had a rickety outdoor rink. Though a new arena was on its way, this one certainly wasn’t bringing people in. But for Barnes, that didn’t matter. She had found a coach with whom she knew she could grow, and Churchill felt it was a perfect match.
The decision to move 3,000 miles away from your family doesn’t come without heartbreak, however. Having their daughter move to a boarding school where she would be a lot more independent than most kids her age required “5,000 boxes of Kleenex,” her dad said. When they dropped her off, her parents were sobbing—Barnes was sad too, but she eventually said her goodbyes and walked off. She had hockey to play.
In Barnes’ first season, New Hampton finished with a respectable 20-11 record. Behind the scenes, however, Barnes would still get torn up about every loss—never demanding answers or explanations of her teammates, but seeking reasons why she herself couldn’t have done more.
Churchill worked with her on her mental game. As a 14-year-old three time zones away from her family, she had a little growing up to do. He helped Barnes learn the value of losses to a person’s growth.
“Losing can help you become better, and it grounds us so we don’t become complacent,” Churchill told her. It didn’t make losing feel any better, but it helped her become a stronger player and leader.
Over her time at New Hampton, Barnes cultivated her skills, though many of her greatest strengths are hard to name. Churchill boiled it down to an almost innate talent, making everyone on the ice better just by joining them. An offensive defenseman, she can push her way out of sticky situations, but she rarely ever commits to making herself the only person involved in a play—she never goes coast to coast.
By the time Barnes was a senior, New Hampton had tallied a 30-3-1 record for the 2016-17 season. Though she will be missed by her teammates and the program will likely falter a little without her, Churchill believes that her way of playing has set her teammates up for a good season. She never went out and scored five goals in a game as a means to pad the lead or make up a deficit—as a defenseman, it wasn’t her job, and it wasn’t her style. Instead, she pushed everyone else to do well.
“She’s one of a kind,” Churchill said. “I don’t think I’ll ever coach another player like her.”
"Before the end of the year, she'll be Boston College's top defenseman, I guarantee it." Craig Churchill, high school coach
arnes is more than just a player. As a leader, she makes sure everyone is taken care of before herself, deflecting even the slightest praise to others. She carries this into her career goals, as she wants to be a pediatrician. Having been around hospitals and care providers because one of her older brothers has autism, Barnes feels attracted to the positive bedside manner—when she’s not training to be an Olympian, of course. But the Eagles have had plenty of good players before, and the final piece of hardware—the NCAA National Championship trophy—has still evaded them.
“Right away, when you see her, you know she has that ‘it’ factor that you just hope you find,” BC head coach Katie Crowley said. So much of what Barnes does cannot be described well by her coaches and peers. It is intangible in some way, usually boiled down to the “smarts” her parents say she had even as a child.
Churchill takes it a step farther than Crowley does. It’s a bold statement, for sure, but he thinks it’s justified.
“Before the end of the year, she’ll be Boston College’s top defenseman, I guarantee it,” he said. He follows it up with something even bolder.
“It’s not just her—the coaches are amazing and they’ve got an amazing team and great players on that team—Lonergan, Kent, Newkirk, you go down the line, just super talented kids,” he said. “But Cayla Barnes is the X factor, and she will help them win a national championship.”
Featured Image by Amelie Trieu / Heights Editor