On Sunday in Pyeongchang, the U.S. sled hockey team defeated Canada in a thrilling overtime game to earn Team USA’s third straight Paralympics gold.
But for 20-year-old Kelsey DiClaudio, one of the best sled hockey players in the world, watching this triumph was bittersweet.
“I’m very happy for them, I’ve played alongside those guys, I know every single one of those guys and they deserve to be there,” DiClaudio told ThinkProgress. “But at the same time, it can be very difficult to watch.”
It’s been a historic year for women’s hockey in the United States — last March, the U.S. women’s national team (USWNT) successfully held a boycott and earned a historic contract from USA Hockey, which providing the women with a level of wages, perks, and accommodations equivalent to their counterparts on the mens’ team. Last month in Pyeongchang, the USWNT matched their victory off the rink with another win for the ages, defeating Team Canada in an overtime shootout to win its first Olympic gold since 1998.
Unfortunately, these monumental victories for women in the sport have not yet trickled down to the women competing in sled hockey. Women’s sled hockey is not an official Paralympic sport, and although there is a U.S. women’s national sled hockey team, it is not officially recognized by USA Hockey.
“It just sucks, when we see the guys who have been coming to the Paralympics since 1994, and we haven’t even been recognized,” DiClaudio said.
A coed sport in name only
Only two women have ever played sled hockey in the Paralympics –Brit Mjaasund Oejen was a goalie for Norway in the sled hockey’s first appearance in the Paralympic Games, back in 1994, and Lena Schroeder, also from Norway, competed this year.
Technically, sled hockey is a coed sport. Currently, each team is permitted to have a roster of up to 17 men, but are permitted to have an 18th player if that spot goes to a female. In other words, each team competing in the Paralympics could have a woman on its roster without taking a way a single roster spot from a man. It’s telling that only one team has decided to do that.
DiClaudio began playing sled hockey when she was nine years old, and instantly fell in love with it. Like most girls in the sport, she grew up playing with the boys. It’s never bothered her. She’s been participating in USA sled hockey camps with the guys since 2011, often as the only female. In 2014, she became the first woman ever named to the U.S. Men’s National Development Sled Hockey Team, and for the next couple of years she juggled her time on the women’s national team and the men’s development team, working twice as hard as everyone else so she could keep her Paralympic dreams alive. But things didn’t turn out like she had hoped.
“I went to tryouts and a lot of guys, they told me I had everything I wanted in a USA Hockey player. I got a lot of accolades,” DiClaudio said. “Then, a week later, I got a call from one of the managers of USA Hockey saying, ‘Sorry, Kelsey, you didn’t make it this year, but don’t worry, you still have the women’s team, and you can work on developing that game.'”
“I get very mad, but it’s not going to keep me from playing, it just gets me to go even harder.”
Though there’s no way to know for sure, DiClaudio definitely feels that she didn’t make the team because she is a woman, despite the fact that the team could have added her to the roster without costing a man a spot on the team. While she has had many positive experiences with USA Hockey, particularly the bonds she’s formed with her male and female teammates, she has often felt mistreated and discriminated against by those in charge.
While she feels like “one of the boys off the ice, one of the boys on the ice,” she says many at USA Hockey have been less than welcoming. In the past, she says she’s faced odd pressures to use smaller equipment made specifically for women, despite the fact that she has always excelled using the men’s equipment. And she’s been disallowed from the men’s locker room, despite the fact that she’s spent her entire hockey career sharing a locker room with her teammates.
“I get very mad, but it’s not going to keep me from playing, it just gets me to go even harder,” she said.
The women’s national team goes at it alone
When things get tough, DiClaudio leans on her trailblazing women’s teammates for support, particularly 30-year-old Erica Mitchell, who has been an integral part of the women’s team since its inception more than a decade ago.
Mitchell has also been playing sled hockey since she was nine years old. In 2004, when she was 18, she was invited to try out for the Men’s U.S. Development Team — which, at the time, was called the Under 20 USA Sled Hockey Team. She made the team on her first try, and was immediately named to the starting line.
“This was a great honor — not only was I the only girl on this team, I was playing with the best players from across the country,” Mitchell told ThinkProgress by email from Pyeongchang, where she was cheering on her boyfriend, Kevin McKee, a player on the U.S. men’s team.
“Back when I made this team it was not under USA Hockey, so there was not a strict set of rules. I was able to be in the locker room with my teammates and I was never labeled as, ‘Oh, she’s a female, let’s treat her differently.’ I was always respected as an athlete. On this team I was an equal I was just one of the guys.”
In 2006, Mitchell was named the captain of the Men’s USA Development Team, making her the first and only woman to hold that honor. A few months later, after encouragement from her coaches, she and another female sled hockey player decided to try out for the Men’s National Team.
“Little did I know, that tryout would test me in a way no elite athlete had been tested before,” Mitchell said.She vividly remembers being called into a room with her parents at the beginning of the tryouts, where the coaches told her that while she could try out, she was not allowed to make the team because she was a woman.
“My heart sank and I just started crying uncontrollably, I had never in my life been segregated from the sport that I love because I was a female,” she said. “I had so many emotions going through my head and I just wanted to leave and go home. But that’s not what a strong female does. I talked to my mom and dad and we all decided I need to go out there and prove that I am better then the guys out there and I deserve a spot on this team. I soon stopped crying and put my gear on and just went out and played with all my teammates.”
Mitchell’s persistence didn’t earn her the spot she coveted on the men’s team, but it did help open doors for women in the sport. Soon after that, the International Paralympic Committee officially made sled hockey a coed sport, allowing for one roster spot on each team to be available for a female athlete. Soon after, the U.S. Women’s National Sled Hockey Team made its debut.
“I had never in my life been segregated from the sport that I love because I was a female.”
Tom Koester, one of the managers of the U.S. Women’s National Sled Hockey Team, launched the team back in 2006, when he noticed that women needed dedicated development programs like the men had. He says that while the team is not officially a part of USA Hockey, it is a “cooperative effort” with the governing body of the sport — and they have had a general agreement that USA Hockey would take over stewardship of the team after Koester and his colleagues help the women build the program up from the grassroots level.
But more than a decade later, there’s still no official timeline for that to happen.
“There have been talks over the past couple of years, but unfortunately each of those plans fall through,” DiClaudio said. “It’s almost like they dangle it and then take it away.”
The fight to compete in the 2022 Beijing Paralympics
Right now, the team is partially funded in grants from the USA Hockey Foundation, as well as through fundraising efforts, such as t-shirt sales and GoFundMe campaigns. Nevertheless, the women still pay a significant amount of money out of their own pockets to go to monthly national camps and travel to competitions. The arrangement is full of frustrations, but there are reasons to be hopeful for the future.
Both Mitchell and Koester remember those first few years of the women’s team, when anyone who wanted to play automatically made the team. Now, the tryouts have become intense competitions featuring upwards of 60 women from all around the country. The game is growing internationally, as well. In 2014, the International Paralympic Committee held the first ever Ice Sledge Hockey Women’s International Cup. Unsurprisingly, the U.S. and Canada have by far the best women’s ice sled hockey teams in the nation, but there is budding interest in developing the sport in Japan, Norway, the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, among others.
With a growing level of interest and participation in women’s sled hockey, there has been a concentrated push to get the sport officially added to the 2022 Paralympics in Beijing. In order for that to happen, it will likely be necessary for at least six firmly established national teams to be competing on the international stage. It’s far from a certainty this will happen, but DiClaudio feels like it’s a more-than-realistic goal. And watching the action in Pyeongchang from afar has made her more determined than ever to make it happen.
The feeling is mutual for Mitchell — although she is getting a much more up-close-and-personal vision of what could be, as she watches her boyfriend compete from the stands in Pyeongchang.
“Being here is amazing and I literally get goosebumps every time I walk into the stadium to watch him. I just have this feeling that I will be able to play on that ice with all my teammates and we will be able to show the world that females can play,” Mitchell said.
“These moments are surreal just because this could one day be me and my teammates and I would know I really made a difference in this sport. My goal is to make it to at least one Paralympics in my life and I will not stop going for my dream.”