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Greg Peters column: Karyn Bye: Do you believe in miracles?

Greg Peters

Thirty-eight years ago today River Falls siblings Karyn and Chris Bye were watching the United States men's hockey team take on the Soviet Union in 1980. Chris was 10; Karyn was 8. In the waning seconds of the game with the U.S. leading 4-3 after two third period goals, play-by-play announcer Al Michaels made his iconic call, "Do you believe in miracles? Yes!"

Directly after the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" buzzer sounded, Chris and Karyn did what most 10- and 8-year-old sports fanatics do; they dreamed, they pretended, and they went directly to their basement to be their heroes they just watched on TV.

Chris pretended he was #10 Mark Johnson from Madison, Wis. Karyn's favorite player was #6 Bill Baker from Grand Rapids, Minn.

The birth of another miracle happened on Feb. 22, 1980. Karyn, only 8 years old, told her parents she was going to play in the Olympics one day.

"That's a true story," said Karyn Bye-Dietz, now married to U of M Strength and Conditioning Coach Cal Dietz. "I did. I told my parents I wanted to play in the Olympics right after that game."

The word "miracle" shouldn't be tossed around like $1 chips in a casino. In the case of Karyn Bye-Dietz; it's not. One definition of the word "miracle" is: a highly improbable or extraordinary event, development, or accomplishment that brings very welcome consequences.

Karyn was good at every sport she played; tennis, softball, basketball, and hockey.

"She could've easily had a scholarship to play softball, too," said her brother, Chris, "but Karyn wanted to play hockey. She was born to do it."

Her dad, Chuck, and the Wildcat girls basketball coach tried to talk her into playing basketball. They thought there was much more opportunity for her and they were absolutely right. There was no girls high school hockey in the late 1980's; not in Wisconsin; not even across the river in the "State of Hockey" in Minnesota.

Karyn played high school hockey with the boys.

"The other teams' cheerleaders would always ask our cheerleaders what number the girl was," said Karyn. "Our cheerleaders always told them #24. That was Jeff Hove; the biggest guy on the team and he had a full beard."

"She was very capable of taking care of herself," said Chris,"but if anyone was going to cheap-shot her, I was going to rip their head off. I don't think it was because she was a girl but really just because she was my sibling."

Karyn's name in the high school game program was K.L. Bye.

"I guess my dad thought it'd put less of a target on my back if the other team didn't know I was a girl," said Karyn.

According to USA Hockey, there were approximately 2,700 girls playing hockey in the United States in 1990. There were only three colleges offering women's hockey scholarships; all three colleges were out east.

Karyn picked the University of New Hampshire in Durham (also the Wildcats).

"Of the three (Providence, Northeastern in Boston, and UNH), it felt like it was the most like River Falls," said Karyn. "And that's why I picked them."

Karyn wore #6 in college but swears it wasn't because of Bill Baker.

"It was just luck of the draw," said Karyn. "I just liked even numbers."

Karyn was named the Bob Allen Women's National Hockey Player of the Year in 1995, the inaugural year of the award. She and a host of others continued writing the Olympic committee to make women's hockey an Olympic sport.

In 1998, in Nagano, Japan, 18 years after she was pretending to be #6 Bill Baker in her basement, her dream came true. Karyn would be representing River Falls and her country in the Olympic Games.

"I kept a journal from Feb. 1, 1997, through the entire experience," said Karyn. "I still read it to this day."

Her Olympic coach, Ben Smith, said during Karyn's 2011 International Ice Hockey Federation Hall of Fame induction interview, "I've coached a lot of Olympics, both male and female. I've never had an athlete that was more prepared for those Olympic Games than Karyn Bye."

"Coach Smith told us before the Olympics, 'Alright ladies, the hay's in the barn;' he just meant all of the preparation was done and now it's time to go play," said Karyn.

Six times the U.S. women's hockey team had played Canada in international competition before the 1998 Olympics; all six were losses.

The day of the gold medal game against Canada, Karyn received a telegram from none other than Bill Baker that said, "Bring home the gold."

They did just that. The first and, as of press time this week, only U.S. gold medal in women's Olympic hockey history. Bye led the U.S. with five goals in six games.

"You are representing so much more than yourself,"said Karyn. "A lot of people on our team were crying when our flag was raised and the anthem was playing."

Roman Dusek, Karyn's River Falls youth hockey coach for five years, remembers that gold medal day with pride: "It was a great thrill to watch her. It was pretty fantastic."

Roman's wife, Marilyn, was listening in on the speaker-phone interview when she chimed in, "Don't let him (Roman) fool you; we were both crying like crazy during the ceremony. She's (Karyn) the little girl we never had."

"Karyn's beautiful both inside and out and she worked so hard," said Roman.

"It was like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders for 18 years," said Karyn. "You work so hard for something. I can't believe it's been 20 years (since 1998). It literally feels like yesterday."

Twenty years after Nagano, Karyn is a busy mom with two teenage kids, Tatum, 14, and Brodie, 12. Tatum excels at swimming, but Karyn still spends plenty of time on the frozen water coaching Brodie's youth hockey teams. Karyn, a 2014 USA Hockey Hall of Fame inductee, is also the girls; high school assistant hockey coach in Hudson (currently ranked #1 in Wisconsin).

"Let's just say I'm still at the rink a lot," said Karyn.

Do you remember the definition of the word "miracle," the part about accomplishment bringing

welcome consequences? Well, in 1999, one year after Karyn Bye and the U.S. took home Olympic gold, over 50,000 girls played hockey in the United States, up from 2,700 only nine years earlier. There's now over 100 schools offering women college hockey scholarships. There were three in 1990.

Do you believe in miracles?