Monica Quimby is a mom, a biologist, a professor, a beauty pageant winner, and a para athlete. Her day typically starts at 4am as she juggles raising a family with two kids while working as a professor of anatomy and physiology at Southern Maine Community College. She trains while the kids are in school.
As an avid skier at the University of New Hampshire, 19-year-old Monica suffered a severe injury in 2006 when she missed landing a back-flip. A member of the UNH ski club, Monica was on her last run of the day down a triple black diamond trail. She had done this jump nearly 30 times before, but this time she swerved to avoid a snowboarder, hit the ski jump sideways, over-rotated her spin, and landed hard on her right side and back. She thought she had broken her legs. It was too cold for her to recognize that the pain in her lower extremities was actually a broken L1 vertebrae and hip. It left her paralyzed.
After learning to walk again with braces, she went back to college to complete her molecular biology degree, having missed just one semester. She kept participating in sports including para-canoeing, but no skiing.
In 2009, Monica found sled hockey (or sledge hockey as it’s known outside the U.S.), a version of ice hockey created in the early 1960s in Stockholm, Sweden to give participants with physical disabilities a chance to play the game. And suddenly, Monica’s love of winter sports returned.
Sled hockey is very similar to ice hockey as most of us know it, but there are some distinctions: there are three 15-minute periods, the custom-fitted sled is about 7-8 lbs and has two sharp blades underneath, and perhaps most notably, there is no backwards maneuvering.
All players use two sticks except the goalie who has one modified goalie stick. Sled hockey sticks have curved blades for shooting purposes, and metal teeth on the other end used for steering and propelling athletes forward. Sticks are used as offensive and defensive mechanisms.
The goalie stick is a shorter version of a stand-up hockey goalie stick, with added picks on the curved blade. Metal picks are also sewn into the goalie’s glove. Hard checks with the sleds are common. Just like stand-up hockey, it’s a physically aggressive sport.
“I’m an athlete,” says Quimby, plain and simple. The statement is meant to be declarative. She is an athlete like any other, except that she’s not just any athlete, Monica is one of the best in the world at what she does. She is a member of the U.S. Women’s National Sled Hockey Team, which competed in the Ice Sledge Hockey International Cup in 2014, winning gold in the team’s first-ever event sanctioned by the International Paralympic Committee.
This past weekend, the women’s team participated in a U.S.A. Hockey event in Scottsdale, Arizona. Like all her teammates, Quimby plays for free. She pays for her own equipment, which doesn’t sound that bad, except that her equipment runs between $1000 and $1500 plus maintenance costs.
“I was trying all adaptive sports. I needed that fix, the adrenaline rush and teammates,” Monica recounts.
It is not uncommon to find women who cross-train in various adaptive sports. Monica’s ability to play different sports and adjust accordingly has translated well in sled hockey too. Up until recently she was on defense. This past weekend she looked confident as a winger. She calls herself a ‘goon’ on the ice which is surprising given her calm demeanor off of it. But according to national team coach, Shawna Davidson, it’s a pretty accurate description.
“She would be considered our enforcer,” says Davidson. “[She] accepts all roles that I ask her to take on and truly loves the sport and her teammates.”
Kelsey DiClaudio credits hockey as her savior.
“Hockey has always been my constant. Hockey has always been a backbone in my life,” she proclaims, unable to contain the giant grin forming on her youthful face.
Kelsey is a 19-year-old freshman at Slippery Rock University, and at moments like this her age reveals itself. She’s a teenager. But she has had as tough a journey as anyone could imagine to get to where she is now. Suffering from tethered spinal cord syndrome, Kelsey was in and out of the hospital for the first four years of her life, enduring multiple surgeries to remove tumors on her spinal cord. But surgery caused nerve damage that eventually led to a paralyzed left foot followed by chronic pain and spinal arthritis.
At the age of 8, DiClaudio found her love of sled hockey. She could still walk, but was debilitated and partly paralyzed. Then, when she was 15, she was given an option to have an elective surgery that might alleviate her pain. The gamble led to complications, including bacterial meningitis, a coma and the complete loss of her ability to walk. She remained hopeful though, because the one love of her life, hockey, was very much still within reach. It had been promised to her before that surgery. Kelsey recalls sneaking out of rehab to go to practice, until one of the nurses caught her.
Now, Kelsey is a fixture of the U.S. national sled team, and believes that in spite of the difficult path she’s been on, her life is a blessing.
“Physically and psychologically, hockey saved my life,” Kelsey, who scored 6 goals and had 3 assists this past weekend, enthusiastically exclaims. She continues to balance her hockey life with her classes, playing on three teams (the Mighty Penguins club team, the U.S. Development Team and the U.S. national women’s team). Her school doesn’t recognize her national team duty as an excusable reason for missing classes. It isn’t an easy path, but nothing for her has ever come easy.
“Kelsey is such a talented player, the best female player in the world, yet her greatest quality is the amazing teammate that she is,” says Davidson. “It is all about team first with her.”
Kelsey credits her family for giving her these opportunities to explore her hockey career. Her twin sister and her parents have been there every step of the way. Her next goal is finding a way to compete in the 2022 Paralympics. If the women don’t reach it, she’ll be fighting for a spot on the men’s team, which has allowed mixed gender rosters since 2010. U.S. Men’s Sled Hockey, however, has never had a female player since entering the Paralympics in 1994.
Kelsey is the only female player on the U.S. Development Sled Hockey Team. No one can argue with her words as she gets ready to go home, “If you want to be the best, you have to play like the best, you have to work hard to be the best. I get out there and play the sport I love.”
Sarah Bettencourt played hockey in middle school through high school. After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in 2005, she went to Stanford University for her Masters in Mechanical Engineering as a Marine in the 23rd Regiment.
In 2008, while training to fly helicopters, Sarah lost the ability to use her hands during an exercise. There were lesions of inflammation discovered in her brain, a cerebral inflammatory disorder. Symptoms have since come and gone, but permanent symptoms include sensation loss and weakness in her hands and feet, loss of balance and coordination, and vertigo.
After retiring from the Marines in 2012, Sarah struggled to find something to do with herself. She was unable to find a university willing to accept her given her special needs. She was unemployable. She was lost. One day she received a phone call from an adaptive skiing program. She didn’t think much would come of it, but she went, and it was there she saw her first sled hockey clinic. She instinctively gave it a try.
“The minute I got on the ice, I was hooked. Hockey has saved my life 100 percent,” she smiles. Sarah had found a renewed sense of purpose.
She started playing in September of 2014, but got pregnant in October that year. By then she had regained the confidence she once had as a natural athlete. So much so that she tried out for the national team five weeks after delivering her baby. Spoiler alert: she made it.
Bettencourt has since launched a San Diego sled hockey club affiliated with the Anaheim Ducks. Now in its third season, the club has expanded into youth, adult and travel teams.
“I’m now giving back to our community. With Team USA, I’m serving our country…and that’s what I need. I need that service and that feeling of community. It makes you feel like you are leaving something behind,” Sarah exclaims.
“You’re making the world a better place and that’s what I want to do.”
Special thanks to U.S.A. Hockey and GALvanize, a bootcamp series launched by Laura Okmin for women in broadcasting and journalism. Its goal is to help create, build, and support that network for the next generation of amazing women, by teaching them the tools to navigate the sports world as journalists and women. Visit http://www.galvanize.life/ for more information.
As the U.S. sled hockey women strive for a spot in the Paralympics (they need more nations to have teams for it to be an official event), there are ways to help now. They are not yet funded by U.S.A. Hockey. For more info on the team and how to help, visit: http://www.uswomensledgehockey.org/
All photos taken by Chandrima Chatterjee.