26 July, 2013

Sarah Vaillancourt

“How old were you when you started playing?” they always ask. Having heard the question so often, I still can’t answer it. Hockey has always been my first love, my ultimate passion. I have my own version of a “Cinderella story”; a story my mother told me once when I asked her why she thought I loved hockey so much. She told me that on May 8, 1985, the day I was born, a huge snowstorm hit my home town in Quebec just as my parents got to the hospital for my birth. Now a snowstorm in Quebec is not a big deal, but since 1985, it has never happened again on that day: a once in a quarter century thing that heralded the birth of a little girl who brought with her just the right kind of weather for playing hockey! I was born to be a hockey player! And the storm was the announcement of my love and passion for the game. It is my “Cinderella” story of something that was meant to be.

Hockey has been nothing but a positive thing in my life and has molded and shaped who I am. But I encountered, and still experience many challenges in my journey with the game – a journey which has allowed me to wear the maple leaf on my chest, to receive a Harvard degree and to win two Olympic gold medals for my country. However, I don’t want to give the impression that it was ever easy.

I started skating when I was 2 years old.  My father used to build an outdoor rink in our backyard every winter and that’s where everything started. He would come home for lunch and I would wait by the door for him with my skates, ready for my personal lesson.  He would take half his lunch hour to teach me how to skate and stickhandle.  I played hockey “24/7”; if it wasn’t on the outdoor rink with my Dad, it was in the basement with my older brother or on the street with my friends or even in my dreams.

I officially started playing in a league with boys when I was 5 years old and continued until I was 16.  Being the only girl in my town playing with the boys I went through many struggles but also many memorable years.  Being the last one cut from the “AA” teams because I was a girl became routine to me.  There was a positive thing though in being cut last at the “AA” camps. It meant that I’d be one of the best players on my “BB” teams and get more ice time and also a letter on my jersey.  I always was a leader by nature, so being the captain of my boys’ team was always something I strived for.  I wanted to be that player that other players look up to as an example of good character, work ethic and ultimate success.

I was 12 years old when I saw women’s hockey for the first time.  Canada was playing the United States in the final game at the Nagano 1998 Olympic Games, the first time that women’s hockey was introduced to the Games.  I love to tell this story because that exact moment changed my life forever.  I was sitting in front of the TV and saw the Canadian team jumping on the ice with their bright red jerseys with the maple leaf on their chest.  I was in awe!  I couldn’t believe how good they looked but more specifically how lucky they were to be playing the best sport in the world while representing our beloved country.  I turned to my parents and said: “I’ll be there too one day and win a gold medal for Canada.”  Secretly, I was hoping to be there for the next Olympics but I guess I didn’t realize at the time how good these women were.  But 8 years later I was there, wearing my first Olympic gold medal around my neck and singing loud and proud the Canadian National anthem.  And now, 13 years later, I have two Olympic Gold Medals and I have been wearing that Canadian jersey with pride for the past 7 years.  But, things weren’t always as easy as perhaps I just made them sound.

When I was 17 years old I had been playing girls’ hockey for 2 years and wasn’t really sure where to go with either my hockey career or my life in general.  I thought my chances of being invited to the Canadian under-22 camp were good but I knew I couldn’t count on it.  This is a trait of mine that has always seemed to work, something I see as a number one ingredient for success; NEVER take anything for granted.  I was known as one of the best women’s hockey players for my age group around North America and all the Division I Universities were already recruiting me. But that still wasn’t enough for me to rest on.  I always wanted to be better. I had one goal in mind and it was to become part of the Canadian National Women’s hockey team.  I worked harder than anybody I know on and off the ice.  My parents had to stop me and thank God they did because I was very close to burning the candle at both ends. Once I hit 17 I was very confused as to where to go from there.  I had just graduated from high school (in Quebec we graduate in grade 11), and I was getting offers to play in American Prep Schools and Colleges but I barely spoke any English.  I could either stay in Quebec close to my family and friends and do what all my friends were doing, or get out of my comfort zone, challenge myself, move to the United States and try my best to succeed on and off the ice.  I have always enjoyed challenges so I picked Pomfret, abeautiful Prep School in Connecticut, and came in as a 17 year old junior with an English vocabulary of about 50 words.

It was one of the toughest things I had ever done, but the people that I met there and the person that I became made all the anxiety, the tears and the headaches worth it.  I went to Pomfret as a talented hard working hockey player and left 2 years later as a confident, purposeful, student-athlete with big dreams and expectations.  The Pomfret School and community made me a stronger person and showed me that I was more than a good hockey player and that I had more to give to others and more to expect from myself than I thought going in. That experience gave me confidence. That is why Harvard University was number one on my college application list.  Meanwhile, during my second year at Pomfret I became a new member of the National Canadian team.  Wearing the Hockey Canada jersey was an even better feeling than what I had been picturing every night before falling asleep for the past 6 years.

I received a call from Harvard University on June 18th 2004 telling me that I was in for the class of 2008.  I had been put on the waiting list because even though I had good grades and decent SATs, English was obviously still my second language and they needed to make sure that I’d keep my grades up until I graduated from Pomfret.  Harvard was an everyday learning experience for me.  If I wasn’t learning new things in the classrooms or in the numerous books that we had to read, I was learning things from my teammates or coaches.  I felt like a gigantic sponge.  My teammates challenged me every day to become a better student and teammate.  My coaches challenged me to become a better person, hockey player and teammate.  Katey Stone (Harvard coach) is the best coach that I have ever had, after my Dad of course.  She didn’t let me get away with anything, but always knew what to say to get the best from me.  She taught me to put the “Team First” no matter where, when or how.  I ended up graduating the year of 2009 with a degree in psychology. I took of year of absence in 2005-2006 for the Olympics which pushed me back one year.  As well as everything else, Harvard took the confidence that I already had as hockey player and taught me how to extend it to my everyday life.

I am now 25 years old and I can’t express how intense my passion for hockey still is.  There’s not one practice or one game that I don’t look forward to.  I now know that my clock has started to count down, but I am not giving up even though my body aches every morning when I wake up.  I will do everything in my power to represent my country again at the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi and win my third straight Olympic Gold medal.  Hockey was my first love and always will be.  I love the smell of a hockey rink.  I love the noise of my blades breaking up the ice.  I love feeling the cold air on my cheeks and my eyes tearing up when I start skating fast.  I love putting my body in front of pucks and not knowing how badly it’s going to hurt, but knowing that it could win a championship.  I love looking around in the locker-room and seeing the fear, the focus and the intensity in my teammates’ eyes before a big game.  I love the butterflies that I get in my stomach when I’m walking down the tunnel and I can hear the crowd. I love how the world stops around me when I step on the ice.  I could keep going on forever, but I’m sure a lot of you can relate to these feelings.  I’ve had the best swiss replica watches chance to live my dream and passion to the fullest and I feel so lucky.  Hockey has taught me to dream and to follow those dreams until I can touch them and that anything is possible with perseverance and work.  However, I can’t take credit for it all.  If it wasn’t replica watches for my family, my friends and the numerous people who have believed in me before I even did, there’s no way I would have accomplished breitling navitimer replica half of what I have so far and I wouldn’t be half the woman that I am today.

Micheal Ewart says:
04 November, 2010 at 16:03 PM
A great story! I have a two year old daughter that I have just begun teaching how to skate. I can't wait until she is old enough to read your story and perhaps follow in your path!

Cindy Waldman says:
24 November, 2010 at 15:22 PM
Sarah, as a Pomfret alum, I am so proud of you and your accomplishments and I am delighted that your Pomfret experience contributed to your success. What a wonderful experience you have had! Here's a little Pomfret history for you. I was one of the two original co-captains of the girls ice hockey team at Pomfret. We started girls ice hockey in the 4th or 5th year of co-education at Pomfret (early '70's) and we had to fight for ice time. The indoor rink had just been built - before that everyone just used the pond (the one that no longer exists). Boys Varsity and JV were given ice time on that beautiful new ice and the rest of the available time was booked up by community interests. The girls were supposed to continue to skate on the pond. We felt left out and sidelined. As teens of the 70's, we did what anyone would do at that time. The answer was to strike. We got the girls together and lay down on the ice during a varsity practice. It didn't take long for those in charge to realize that we had a right to the same privileges as the boys. You should have seen our rag-tag team! We used ancient faded jerseys handed down from the boys league team from years before. They had been torn and sewn back together many times. Half our girls skated on figure skates! But we had a blast. We also had Brad Hastings as our coach for a while until he moved on to boys varsity. A little note aside& those aches and pains you mentioned in your article? Have you ever tried Reiki energy healing? I am a Reiki master and Reiki is amazingly effective at eliminating aches and pains. You can learn to do self-Reiki and it only takes a few minutes to relax warm muscles even while you are training. For injury recovery, it truly speeds up healing as a compliment to whatever medical treatment the athlete is receiving. I wish you great success in your future and in the upcoming Olympics! Cindy Waldman

Trina Fournier says:
27 February, 2014 at 14:28 PM
Fantastic. Thanks for sharing. Born in 1969, I grew up in a girls don't play hockey world. I am glad we are moving beyond that. During the Sochi Olympic Hockey Tournament my son and I cheered the Canadian women with all our hearts. It was at this point that I realized my son is growing up to expect to watch women's hockey. For him there is no difference, no inequality, no "girls don't play hockey" mentality. I look forward to the day when television will give more airtime to women in sport every week of every year.

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