21 January, 2019

Gripping ice sledge hockey career of Karina Villegas grows by quantum leap



With the United States national women’s ice sledge hockey team holding a sensational standing, perched above the rest of the world, its top-ranked status involves a unique number of stories concerning the women who navigate the sleds. Undeniably, Karina Villegas represents such a fascinating narrative, going from novice to world-class competitor, subsequently evolving into an ambassador for the game, admirably embodying the sport’s growing potential, globally.

Originally from Venezuela, Villegas’ life was changed forever when she was struck by a car during her teens. Surviving the near-death experience, the one casualty was the unfortunate fact that her right leg was amputated.

With tremendous determination, Villegas has tapped into her inner strength, enjoying the opportunity to blossom into a hockey hero in the United States, simultaneously contributing to an incredible chapter in the nation’s influential sporting culture while proving that a disability can be overcome. Such a development in her sporting life brings with it a unique tinge of irony in the fact that the native of Sebastian, Florida first expressed interest in swimming.

Bringing her daughter to a local rink in 2014, Villegas developed a fascination with the frozen perimeter, impressed with the speed and precision, which defines ice hockey at all levels. That inaugural visit would prove to be the springboard towards a compelling journey.

With a mantra to look for the brighter side, Villegas abandoning her ambitions at the pool, and her comfort zone, for the diversion of mounting the sled. Significantly, one of the nascent experiences in the sled allowed her an opportunity to meet one of the heroes of US ice sledge hockey.

Among the most recognizable names for the Florida Bandits, Greg Shaw, born with sacral agenesis, and a native of Merritt Island, Florida, possesses a strong hockey resume. Highlighted by a pair of gold medals with Team USA at the Vancouver 2010 and Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games, along with golden glories at the 2009 and 2012 IPC World Championships, his ability provided Villegas with ample motivation to emulate his heroics.

Encountering Villegas while she was still a novice in the sport, Shaw, who debuted with the National Ability Center's Golden Eagles as a teenager, supplied guidance and counselling to a player entering the sport later in life. While Villegas would enjoy the privilege of one day appearing with the prestigious Florida Bandits, calling the sensational Shaw a teammate, he has remained a role model,

“Greg is also my teammate and mentor on my local team, the Space Coast Blast. We are extremely lucky to have him in our program. I met him on my fourth time on the ice. He always shows up when needed, and is a great mentor not just for me but for everyone on the team. We have (so) much respect for him.”

During her formative period as an ice sledge hockey player, Villegas competed with a number of teams, including the Tier IV Tampa Bay Lightning, plus the Space Coast Hurricanes, from Rockledge, Florida. Also gaining gain a spot with the US Developmental Team, the first in program history, it marked the beginning towards earning a position with the national women’s team.

Taking her place on the US women’s national team for the 2016-17 season, her arrival would result in the discovery of a group of strong women that not only became teammates, but developed into a second family.

Fittingly, the outset of that season would also bring about the sense of coming full circle for Villegas. In December 2016, Villegas joined Team USA women's in an exhibition contest in her home state of Florida, where she honed her tremendous ice sled hockey skills, challenging the highly competitive Sled Bandits, coached by Ron Robichaud.

One season earlier, the sixth annual USA Hockey Sled Classic (held on November 21, 2015) saw the Sled Bandits emerge with the Tier I Championship. In addition to the likes of IPC World Champion players Harry Benson, Chris Douglas, Jason Picaro and Greg Shaw, Monica Quimby, a teammate of Villegas on Team USA women’s was also a member of the Sled Bandits championship team.

That memorable first season wearing the Stars and Stripes for Villegas would see her compete against the Arizona Sled Team, participate in a weekend event in Charlotte, North Carolina with the USA Developmental Team, while a series versus the Wounded Warriors in Philadelphia served as the competitive denouement.

Enjoying the prestige of a gold medal at the 2018 Women’s Para Ice Hockey World Cup in Ostrava, Czech Republic, as a glorious American roster vanquished their Canadian rivals, such an event signified a proud pinnacle in the hockey dream of Villegas.

Complementing the feat of a wondrous world championship, the second straight for the US, a tournament highlight involved the opportunity to score her first international goal. Finding the back of the net in the second game of the World Cup, a 7-0 whitewashing versus Team Europe, it was a treasured highlight, which signaled her arrival on the game’s global stage.

“It is indescribable. As an immigrant, born and raised in Venezuela, I was used to tropical weather.  Playing sled hockey and having the opportunity to become a world champion and be part of a team that is breaking barriers at a world level is beyond any of my dreams. This USA has offered me freedom and so much more. I am very proud and honored to represent the red, white, and blue.”

The aftermath of the competition also brought with it an opportunity to be appreciated on a much grander stage, adding another monumental milestone in a memorable year for Villegas. Part of a gathering of US women’s ice sledge hockey competitors at Denver’s Pepsi Center, honored for their golden World Cup performance, Villegas and her teammates were on-hand for an NHL regular season contest featuring the Colorado Avalanche.

With their victorious visages on the big screen, receiving a well-deserved ovation, there was also a sense of achievement for Villegas in the fact that this was an opportunity shared with Monica Quimby. A teammate on both the national team and on an elite team in Florida, their athletic endeavors have intersected in empowering fashion, while allowing for a unique coincidence.

In spite of their status as two of Florida’s finest female ice sledge hockey players, neither Villegas nor Quimby are from the Sunshine State. Quimby, a former winner of the Miss Wheelchair Maine beauty pageant, whose current off-ice occupation involves the role of educator, was also an elite athlete during her younger years spent in New England.

While Villegas and Quimby have made their competitive mark in their adopted state, both balance their competitive obligations with an off-ice role of mothers to their respective families. Definitely taking on the persona of role models to both family and fans alike, their common ground of athletics have also transformed them into kindred spirits, providing Villegas with someone she is proud to share her hockey experiences with.

“It is definitely a bragging right having a teammate from Florida. She has also been my teammate on an elite Florida team, and she has my back on the ice.”

In addition to their competitive glories internationally, along with club play heroics in Florida, this distinguished and highly energetic duo have surely embodied the spirit of teamwork in most fantastic fashion. Both keen to raise awareness of the sport, simultaneously geared to stimulating its growth, their competitive collaboration involved a commendable effort to introduce the game to Puerto Rico. As a side note, Villegas has also given her time to provide local instruction. In December 2017, she was joined by fellow ice sledge hockey star Tripp Skinner, at a scrimmage in Jacksonville, Florida.

Considering the proud Latin American heritage that Villegas possesses, the focus of Puerto Rico brought with it a heightened sense of purpose. Having arrived following a devastating hurricane that destroyed one of only two rinks on the island, there was the strong sense of a humanitarian mission to their ice sledge hockey clinic at the Ocean Front Arena in Aguadilla, located on the island’s west coast, looking to provide a pleasant diversion from the brutal realities of this natural disaster.

Part of Florida Sled Hockey’s “Grow the Game” Tour, over 30 skaters participated while players and coaches from the Florida State Bandits, among other groups, which also included the aforementioned Greg Shaw on-hand. Historically, this marked the first time that athletes traveled to the island to practice winter sports, simultaneously the biggest gathering of skating athletes for an event in the Caribbean. Graciously bringing the gold medals won from Vancouver and Sochi for a post-clinic autograph session, Shaw was joined by Villegas and Quimby, supplying their signatures to photos and placards, providing the participants and fans with a treasured keepsake. 

With ambitions to one day introduce the game to other parts of Latin America, including Colombia, Mexico, Peru and her native Venezuela, it may be destined to serve as the crowning touch to an absolutely inspiring career. Certainly, such splendid ambitions were fuelled by a heartwarming moment in Puerto Rico, which saw Villegas and Quimby connect with the youth in the community that participated in the boys and girls’ clinics.

Combining scenery and sincerity, a park near Ocean Front Arena served as the backdrop for an enjoyable game of street hockey, allowing interested participants an introduction to hockey without the need to grace the ice, the NHL’s Florida Panthers also donated equipment for this facet of the event. As the game featured connotations of amusement and care-free innocence for the youngsters involved, provided Villegas with an unforgettable moment. Indeed, the opportunity to bond with the community in such unique fashion served as a catalyst towards such a successful event.

“Playing street hockey with the kids! There was a beautiful hill, and at the bottom was a park right next to the ice hockey arena, with everything in front of the Caribbean Sea!

After our sled hockey clinic, we all played street hockey with the local kids in that park. It was kind of surreal playing street hockey while listening to the waves crashing just a few feet away.”

“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”

#wpihwc2018
#womenspara18

Photo credits:

Game action image by Vanessa Gonzalez

Puerto Rico image obtained from Florida Sled Hockey facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/FlaSledHockey/)

Team image obtained from the Matt Bettencourt Collection

Other images obtained from Facebook

References:

https://www.facebook.com/FlaSledHockey/posts/1719430404750564

https://www.floridatoday.com/story/sports/2016/12/28/sled-hockey-players-makes-womens-us-national-team/95919090/

https://www.floridatoday.com/story/news/local/2015/12/02/florida-bandits-sled-hockey-team-wins-title/76657740/

https://www.paralympic.org/news/karina-villegas-dreams-taking-para-ice-hockey-latin-america

http://teamusa.usahockey.com/tournaments/59416589691afa57a0000aa7/players/595e4cd54a397b17a5000033

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