Katie O'Donnell, the Daughter of a Top Official, Grew Up Around the Game


This article appears in the November edition of US Lacrosse Magazine, available exclusively to US Lacrosse members. Join or renew today! Thank you for your support.

From a young age, Katie O’Donnell was exposed to lacrosse early and often through her mother, Jen, a longtime official and a member of the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame.

“I was juggling work, my kids and officiating,” Jen O’Donnell said. “There were times when Dad [John O’Donnell] was working, so Katie had to come with me.”

Katie O’Donnell vividly remembers those moments on the sidelines.

“Whether it was at UVA, Rutgers, Penn State or Georgetown, my mom would bring a little folding chair and I’d sit there with my lacrosse stick and watch the game,” she said. “That’s how it all started.”

“It” has been an All-American career at Penn State, followed by an ascendant path in the U.S. national teams program. O’Donnell has competed in numerous events since first joining the player pool in 2018 and plans to try out for the 2021 team set to defend its gold medal in the World Lacrosse Women’s World Championship next summer. 

O’Donnell’s career has developed organically.

“Being exposed to the game and high-level college games right away probably sparked her interests even more,” Jen O’Donnell said.

Being around her mom exposed O’Donnell to lacrosse, but she was never pressured to play the sport.

“As soon as Katie said she wanted to play, we signed her up,” Jen O’Donnell said. “I remember saying to my husband that I could tell she was going to be good. When I was at NCAAs, we’d be away for a whole weekend. I would take her with me and she’d constantly be finding cement walls and bouncing the ball off the walls.”

O’Donnell’s motivation has come from within, but having a successful mother in the sport has certainly helped as well.

“I’ve watched my mom rise to the top of her career, but constantly striving for more and never settling,” she said. “Her love for officiating has made me love lacrosse even more as a player and pushed me to keep improving.”

The O’Donnell family is no stranger to the international game. Since Katie was born, Jen has officiated three world championships —  the U19 games in Australia (1999) and senior games in England (2001) and the United States (2005). The 2021 world championship will be the first on U.S. soil since 2005, when Australia shocked the U.S. to win the gold medal in Annapolis, Md.

“To be honest, I never really felt like the U.S. team was attainable, then I got to college and was having a pretty good career,” Katie O’Donnell said. “It’s very surreal when you get the call with an invitation to a training weekend. I didn’t realize how much I actually wanted it until I got there.”

The people keep O’Donnell wanting it even more.

“I’ve learned if you work hard, you can do it because you’re surrounded by people who are supporting you,” she said. “It can be a little intimidating. It still is. It’s a lot of hard work and is definitely difficult, but you’re surrounded by some of the most talented, inspiring and supportive athletes. It makes the whole process feel more attainable because you’re surrounded by people who want you to succeed.”

While O’Donnell never attended the world championships as a child, she observed closely when her mother officiated U.S. exhibition games in the buildup to the events.

“I’d watch the developmental teams play. I never saw a World Cup live because my mom was always so busy and we were in prime summer camp season as kids,” she said. “But I always knew it was a big deal. She didn’t talk much about the games she officiated, but rather the friends she made and all the laughs she had.”

Even though Jen O’Donnell officiates and Katie O’Donnell plays, they share bonds that go beyond the obvious as mother-daughter — and a love for what lacrosse represents in their family.

“Seeing the friends my mom has made along the way has made me so much more grateful for the game, my experience and memories I’ve made,” said Katie. “I always say the best parts of my life have been brought to me because of lacrosse.”

O’Donnell said she’s honored even to be considered for the 2021 U.S. team. Now an assistant coach at Lehigh, she was a two-time All-American and the 2018 Big Ten Midfielder of the Year at Penn State, where she ranks fourth in program history with 203 career goals.

“Katie has always been so self-driven and self-motivated,” Jen O’Donnell said. “I believe that is why she’s been able to take the national team route. She is an excellent player, but also disciplined.

“Katie is also a team player. Because the U.S. team travels and is with each other for weeks at a time, you have to get along and be a team player. It’s quite the sacrifice.”

A sacrifice that’s well worth it.

“My mom always said representing the United States as a referee was such an honor,” said Katie. “It’s so much bigger than any one player or team.”

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