As the United States celebrates capturing the gold medal at the inaugural IPC Ice Sledge Hockey International Women’s Cup, it was a moment of jubilation and elation for Erica Mitchell. Proudly donning the captain’s C on her jersey, Mitchell is one of the sport’s pioneers.
With close to a decade of experience in the sport, Mitchell has seen the sport grow from its infancy. Of note, her experience stems back to competing alongside male competitors. Although the outcome resulted in heartbreak, it was a defining moment for Mitchell, as her strong will helped lead the beginning of a remarkable journey for sporting equality.
“In 2007, I had tried out for the men’s USA team. It was there when a former female teammate and I were taken in to a room and told that we could try out for the team but we would not make it because there was a rule stating that females could not play on team. No one had known about this rule because no other girl was ever at this elite level until now.
We did end up staying and trying out knowing that we would not make it. It was after this tryout that I felt it was very unfair that I could not play at this level. With the help of Lori Brake (our team manager now for the women’s team), we asked our friends from the north (Canada) if they were having the same problem. It was after this conversation that both countries decided to make women’s national teams.”
Among some of the individuals that have helped pave the way for women’s ice sledge hockey in the United States, Tom Koester would have a positive influence on Mitchell. With great empathy and determination, Koester was one of the first individuals who recognized Mitchell’s talent and believed that women deserved more opportunities in the sport.
“I have known Tom Koester since I was 17 I am now 27. He has seen the struggles that I have gone through with hockey. When we started the women’s team, we always had the dream of women playing sled hockey in the Paralympics. Tom was my coach and he is now a great advocate for women’s sled hockey.
When I heard tom was going to back the women’s team, I was so excited because I knew he was going to work as hard as he can to get this a Paralympic sport. He and Tom Brake worked very hard to start the US Under-20 team, which is now the developmental national team. With both of these guys behind our team I know we will go far!”
Among her accomplishments, Mitchell was recognized by USA Hockey as its Disabled Athlete of the Year in 2007. Taking into account that Mitchell was still playing among male competitors, it was testament to her potential as one of the building blocks towards establishing the female game.
“When I was named the Disabled athlete in 2007, I was ecstatic. I knew that after I had won this award that great things would happen in women’s hockey. I am so grateful to people who voted for me. This win was the start of something great. This put a female face on a male dominated sport.”
Like so many great athletes, Mitchell is known for a distinguishing feature that makes her one to watch during the game. Akin to Joe Namath wearing white shoes or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with his goggles, Mitchell once had pink Crocs adorning her feet during a game. Although it would become a trademark that has identified her with fans, Mitchell provides background,
“So everyone thinks I wear pick crocs when I play but that is not the case. I do love pink and I do wear pink crocs off the ice. When I first made the Under-20 team, I was at a tournament in Sweden and I was hit very hard in my foot and it became deeply bruised. I was wearing gym shoes at that time.
After this hit, I went to Target with my dad and we picked out some pink Barbie roller skates and cut the roller skating off. Since I was the only girl on the team, I wanted to stick out a little. I did not want to wear the normal black skate boots that everyone else was wearing. After this I was known as the girl with pink boots/crocs.”
Among the many positive influences in her playing career, her father may have been the most influential. Although her father is no longer with her, he held a very treasured place in her heart when the gold medal she earned at the IPC Ice Sledge Hockey International Women’s Cup,
“I lost my dad this past march. He was the kind of dad that always pushed me to work my hardest and not let being a woman get in the way of my dreams. He came to every practice for the past 19 years. He was my #1 fan and he was my motivator. I know that my dad was looking down on me that day when we sang our national anthem and placed those gold medals around our necks.”
Honored as the team captain, it places Mitchell in a very special position. When able-bodied women’s hockey was making inroads in the 1990s, Cammi Granato was more than the US captain, she was its ambassador. There is no question that as the women’s ice sledge hockey program expands; Mitchell’s contributions as captain run parallel to Granato’s stellar legacy.
“When we started this team seven years ago I was asked to be the captain. I am so blessed to see how far this team has come. We went from having five skaters that were on the team, only because they were girls, to 15 women that have earned (the chance) to wear the logo on their chest.
Being apart of this team has really changed my life. My teammates are my sisters we are one family. We came together and we did what we needed to do. That was show the world that just like the men’s USA team (at the Sochi Paralympics), we can take on the world and bring home the gold. I am blessed to have the best teammates in the world. To see how far we had come from the first game to this gold medal game I was speechless. I will say I did shed some tears.
Good things are coming and I cannot wait to experience it with my teammates! My dream is to one day be able to represent my country in the Paralympics with my teammates. I, along with my teammates, am going to make this dream a reality.”
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Image supplied by Erica Mitchell