As the United States recently captured the first gold medal in the history of the IPC Ice Sledge Hockey International Women’s Cup, one of its most inspiring and remarkable heroes was Karen Smith. A goaltender for the US squad, Smith has shattered barriers in ways that prove there are no obstacles that cannot be overcome.
At 62 years old, Smith may have been the oldest competitor for the United States, but her young at heart approach only added to the jubilation of a historic victory. Gracing the ice with a lifelong love of sport, complemented by a participation of many different sports, her initial exposure to hockey came by association,
“I was playing a lot of other adaptive sports. My focus was on skiing and tennis. My boyfriend at the time was into playing hockey and I was watching his games. I found out from other tennis players that Connecticut was going to start a sledge hockey team. I did not know anything about the game but I was open to giving it a try and was hooked on it right away.”
While Smith participated in a sport that is still growing among female competitors, her eventual decision to compete as goaltender would mark the beginning towards a golden path.
“One day, the coaches had said ‘Let us see if we can try a scrimmage. Who wants to sit in net?’ Not one person put their hand up, so I gave it a try.”
Dedicated to the team first, it has proven to be an approach that Smith is proud to bring to every sport that she plays in. It was that kind of positive attitude that also found Smith volunteering her time for the US team in various off-ice capacities.
“What our staff has done for us is just incredible. These people have full-time jobs and quietly go along, never getting noticed. A couple of us on the team try to help as much as possible.
Fund raising is a huge part. We run on a non-profit basis. Currently, it is not under the umbrella of USA Hockey. We are working towards that, but we are strictly on donations. We try to get together once a month for fundraising and trying to progress the sport itself.”
Although some aspects of women’s ice sledge hockey vary from able-bodied hockey, especially in terms of the physicality, the common thread between the two sports is the sense of mutual respect and friendship. It is one that provides Smith with great enjoyment,
Heading into the inaugural IPC Women’s Worlds, hosted in Brampton, Ontario, Canada, the overwhelming feeling among all the competing teams was one that represented history. An important sense of acceptance, the validation for years of sacrifice, the event provided long overdue recognition for the heroic women who compete in ice sledge hockey, establishing them as great role models.
“In the beginning, when we first got there (to Brampton), it was the most nervous I had ever been for any event. Canada is a tough rival. We were playing them in the land of hockey for the first gold medal recognition in the world of women’s sledge hockey.”
While the gold medal game would add another chapter in the iconic hockey rivalry between Canada and the US, the fact that these nations had the chance to compete for a world championship was part of a bigger story. One in which every player, coach, volunteer and fan involved emerged with a great sense of victory.
“The Hockey Hall of Fame was there (for the gold medal game) and they documented it. It is an official recognition of women’s sledge hockey. They took Kelsey DiClaudio’s jersey and they will put a picture of our team in the HHOF. We will be there forever.”
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Images supplied by Karen Smith