Young at heart, Karen Smith approaches women’s ice sledge hockey with a jovial and positive approach that results in a magnetic personality. At 62 years old, Smith’s contributions at the rink extend the impact that older athletes have recently enjoyed in sport. From Dara Torres, who would compete in the Summer Games for the United States past the age of 40 to Diana Nyad, who swam from Cuba to Florida, Smith is part of that sorority breaking barriers.
While Smith’s experience dates back to the sport’s nascent years, she has become more than just a pioneer for the sports. As an elder stateswoman for the sport, she has proven to be a valued friend. Off the ice, rivalries are dissolved and nationalities are erased as the common thread of participation forms the basis for mutual respect among all players.
Despite the fact that a lifetime of competitive sport has provided Smith with many influences, she still finds new inspiration. Of note, her ice sledge hockey career is certainly defined by such an inspiration,
“Definitely my coach with the US team now. She took a rag-tag bunch and turned us into an elite level team. I first started with the team seven years ago. We all wanted to do this and we were doing ok. The people helping were very nice.
All of a sudden, we were going a bit further. The team got hold of a woman who had played able-bodied hockey with the US National Team. She had coached top-level college but there was a lot of work to do.”
Having competed in first three IIHF Women’s World Hockey Championships (1990, 1992, 1994), current head coach Shawna Davidson would make an impression with Smith and teammates alike. Understanding the demands of competing at an elite level, especially on the international stage, her athletic tendencies led to a moment that Smith would value for the remainder of her career,
“The first thing she did, along with the assistant coach, and I respect it about her, was getting into the sled. She wanted to see what it was like. Other coaches did not do that, they did not see any need.
It is a fast sport, very tough. I am not into slow sports. It reminds me of skiing. We also have checking, it is tough. We do not abide by able-bodied women’s rules, which do not have checking.
She did that and she won the respect of the team. By doing that, she saw what we were doing, how hard we work. We are athletes and not just disabled. Once she got to the puck (with the sled), she had a lot of work to do. As we are in wheelchairs, we have strong upper bodies. So we were able to handle the puck. She proved to be a top-level coach who supplied direction to a group of top-level athletes.”
That level of respect and admiration culminated in a historic run towards the gold medal at the inaugural IPC Ice Sledge Hockey Women’s World Cup. While the road to the historic gold brought with it feelings of anticipation, it provided Smith and her teammates with an experience that can never be duplicated,
“The place was packed for the gold medal game and there was lots of noise. It was the slowest clock I had ever played against. It was just amazing watching the clock wind down, knowing the gold medal was ours…just amazing!”
As the goaltender for the powerhouse United States program, her athletic journey has now reached unprecedented heights with the title of world champion. Her passion for the sport is the perfect complement for the next step in the growth of women’s ice sledge hockey; competing as a demonstration sport at the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games.
“That is the goal, the ultimate. I have been playing sports my whole life. When I was first disabled, I thought ‘How will I ski?’ I dreamed of the possibility of someday heading to the Olympics in skiing. My goal was always someday getting the chance to try. There were many things I had competed in. I was nationally ranked in tennis.
Playing in a team sport like sledge hockey, with an elite coach like this, I thought ‘Could we reach the Paralympic level?’ At the IPC Worlds, the IPC announced that it would be coming to the 2018 Paralympics as a demonstration sport. Apparently, it is kind of a new sport; this is the way we have to go. It is our dream to get to the Paralympics. It would be amazing and I hope to be there.”
Smith may be older, but her presence is not intimidating whatsoever. Kind, compassionate, with an almost grandmotherly demeanor, she sets a positive tone. Her admiration and acknowledgement of the younger players, helps to encourage them to become the leaders and role models they are destined to become.
“Playing with younger girls, like Kelsey DiClaudio, who is 16 years old, she is amazing. A total inspiration to play around. It is nice when you are on a good team and you can watch the action when it is not on your end. To watch plays develop between her (DiClaudio) and Erica Mitchell is phenomenal.
Erica goes way back, around 2007. In 2005, she was on the Under-20 National Team. The US team was co-ed and she was one of their best players. Once the guys aged out, when you reached 20, there was no place for you. For Erica, one of the most developed players to play on the national team, it was heartbreaking.
She was a remarkable player and still is. One of the gents running the U-20 program started the women’s team in the US. He believed he could not let talent like that get away.”
Although Smith’s maturity certainly brings a comforting influence to the team, setting a reassuring tone, it is part of what makes her a cherished teammate. In discussing what she enjoy the most about the sport, the passion of playing a team sport rises to the surface, putting in perspective the beauty of the game,
“Mostly the team atmosphere. I have always been into team sports; I am that kind of player. I like playing with others who have the same goal in mind. We are very much like sisters when we get together. For the IPC Worlds, we had hooded sweatshirts that said, ‘One team, one dream.’ Every one is just as important as the next one. Together, we are strictly one team.”
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Images supplied by Karen Smith