It was going to be the pinnacle of their careers. Three athletes who sacrificed for years would play on the first U.S. women's Olympic hockey team.
They would be in Nagano now, battling for a medal with their loved ones watching proudly from the stands. Instead, their dreams were shattered.
Kelly O'Leary, Stephanie O'Sullivan and Erin Whitten were the last players cut.
"It ruined my life," O'Leary says. "It's changed my whole outlook, my whole faith in people."
It is the darker side of the Olympic story that so often spotlights the successes. Those left behind must deal with sorrow and bitterness that may never go away.
O'Sullivan already had endured too much pain for her 26 years. Her father died of cancer in 1990. Only 25 months later, the disease claimed her mother. But, growing up in Boston, hockey had been her life. It helped her through the tough times.
And the Olympics--with some of her seven brothers and three sisters cheering as she took the ice--would make all the hard work worthwhile.
"I've been through tragedy before and faced a lot of adversity," O'Sullivan says, "but nothing compares to this."
Whitten is taking it the best. A goalie, she knows she slumped at the wrong time, just before the cuts were made.
"I went through a grieving period and I moved on," she says.
As youngsters, they persevered through early-morning practices and barriers to women. They became pioneers of their sport and three of the top U.S. players.
But the Olympics are going on without them.
Coach Ben Smith announced his choices the night of Dec. 20, a few hours after the Americans beat Olympic favorite Canada, 3-0, in Lake Placid, N.Y., to win the Three Nations Cup.
He gathered his 23 players and read the names of the 20 he'd take to Nagano. O'Leary and O'Sullivan were stunned by what they didn't hear--a blindside check from out of nowhere.
"I thought it was a joke," O'Sullivan said. "I wanted to raise my hand and tell him he forgot my name. It was that obvious to everybody."
"I was completely in shock," said O'Leary. "I saw him in the hallway later and pointed my finger at him and I said, "you know I belong on this team.' He said, 'no you don't.' "
O'Leary had been a solid defenseman on the national team since its formation in 1990 and had put her career plans on hold to try for the Olympics. Her chances looked excellent after she was named last April to the all-tournament team at the world championships.
O'Sullivan, a national team member since 1994, played on the first line throughout the Olympic training that began last August.
They say they weren't cut because of their ability and, to this day, they don't know why. Players who meant so much to the growth of women's hockey are bitter that Smith didn't break the news privately.
"I'd much rather do it in front of the whole team," Smith said. "Everybody's got to face the music.
"While their length of service was great for women's hockey and, in particular, for USA hockey, I think all the players came into this knowing you can give your best and it might not be good enough."
He wouldn't reveal his reasons for the cuts.
"I don't want to tear those players down," he added. "They just got beaten out by better players."
No way, say O'Leary and O'Sullivan.
"There's something fishy about this whole thing because he cut two of the hardest workers. I don't think the truth will ever come out," O'Leary said. "There aren't many girls on the team that can even lace my skates."
"By cutting me, coach Smith has put himself above the team and above the country," O'Sullivan said. "Twenty members of the team would stand behind me as far as knowing I got a raw deal. He made a mistake."
O'Sullivan, more reserved than O'Leary, was named an alternate in case someone got hurt. That didn't happen.
Whitten, a 26-year-old University of New Hampshire graduate from Glens Falls, N.Y., has been on the national team since 1992. She is helping efforts to start a pro league and may try for the next Winter Olympics.
"I'm not the kind of person who's going to let that ruin my life," she said. But she had some rough nights when the team was about to leave for Nagano.
"Whether it's dream or nightmares, I don't know," she said.
The barely healed wounds are being rubbed raw by the start of the Olympics. Newspapers headline America's hopes. Television trumpets the glory of the Winter Games.
O'Leary and O'Sullivan had to get away. They're vacationing together in Florida and have no intention of watching the games they're convinced they should have been in.
O'Leary tried to escape before, spending three weeks in Switzerland last month where she skied and visited friends. Then she returned to her Auburn, Mass., home and her room filled with trophies, medals and plaques.
"I just don't look at the walls," she said. "Everybody says you've done so much to be proud of but none of that means anything anymore."
"She was like a zombie" after being cut, her mother Maureen says. "She didn't sleep at all. She couldn't eat and it's still almost the same way."