Whether she’s skating alongside men or women, this sled hockey player isn’t afraid to break down barriers.
On the ice, Erica Mitchell is a flash of blonde hair, pink boots and steely determination. Adrenaline drowns out the noise from the cheering crowd. “When the puck’s about to drop at a big, nerve-racking championship game, you don’t hear anything but your teammates and your coach,” she says.
But the 26-year-old isn’t just a rarity as a female hockey player in a male-dominated sport – she’s also one of the first women sled (aka sledge) hockey players in a high-octane sport designed for players with disabilities. When she scores, she does it while strapped to a seat attached to a custom-fitted sled. When she speeds across the ice, she propels herself with a pair of hockey sticks and amazing strength. And her talent hasn’t gone unnoticed.
Like many of her peers, Ms. Mitchell has worked hard for her achievements. She was born with sacral agenesis, a congenital disorder that left her without the lower part of her spinal cord and calves. And although she can feel her ankles and toes, she’s unable to move them. As a result, she gets around with a walker.
“When I was younger I had moments of weakness when I’d break down and cry because I’d never be able to walk by myself,” she admits. “But my parents would tell me that there’s always someone out there who has it worse than you.”
Her family continually emphasized the importance of independence. “I was never given any sympathy by my siblings, and my parents pushed me to be my own person – to be independent and able to live on my own,” she explains, adding that she’d crawl upstairs to her bedroom in the attic. There was no ramp to reach their house so she learned to adapt. “They definitely pushed me; for that I’m grateful.”
Growing up with sacral agenesis meant that she often attracted attention, sometimes with kids openly staring. “When I was younger, kids would always ask, ‘What’s wrong with her?’ So my mom would tell me to just wave or smile,” she recalls. “Now when kids ask me, I explain that I was born this way, that I don’t have calves, and they kind of understand. I explain it to them – I don’t want to be mean about it; it’s just because they don’t know.”
Today, Ms. Mitchell is a senior at Chicago State University studying therapeutic recreation. She considers herself lucky to be exposed to a variety of activities at a young age – camping, scuba diving, skiing – and hopes to give back by helping to introduce kids with disabilities to sports.
AN EVEN PLAYING FIELD
For Ms. Mitchell, hockey isn’t just a hobby; it’s a way of life. She lives alone, off-campus, and juggles classes with hockey practice. In 2007, she received the Disabled Athlete of the Year Award by USA Hockey; a year later, she helped set up the first USA women’s sled hockey team. And although the Paralympics currently don’t have a women’s hockey event since there aren’t enough teams to compete, that’s not stopping Ms. Mitchell from giving it her all.
In fact, she’s the captain of the USA women’s sled hockey team, which is only one of three women’s teams globally – the others are Canada and Europe. And when they’re not playing against other female athletes, the women – whose ages range from 16 to 61 – play against the men’s team.
Shawna Davidson, head coach of the USA women’s sled hockey team and a three-time silver medalist in women’s ice hockey, says that male versus female competition ups the ante. “The women love the competition of playing against the men – they’ve paid for [the equipment and travel expenses] themselves or through grants and taken time from work or home, so they’re going to give it their best,” she explains. “There’s still the strength difference between male and female athletes but we’ve beaten some of these men’s teams.” She adds that “the men have their pride too, so it’s not like they’ll go lighter on you, especially when they see my women’s team out there banging and hitting just as hard.”
And according to Coach Davidson, speed and intelligence make Ms. Mitchell unique. “She’s like the extension of the coaching staff on the ice and that’s the biggest compliment you can give a player,” she says. “She’s so laid-back and easygoing, but she’s there to win and she gets wiser with every game.”
ONE OF THE GUYS
When she’s not traveling to meet up with her female teammates once or twice a month, Ms. Mitchell plays for the men’s RIC Blackhawks sled hockey team at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. Being the only girl doesn’t faze her; she considers it an honor to be treated as one of the guys. “Once we get on the ice everyone’s at the same playing level, so they’re going to hit you just as hard as they hit everyone else,” she says, laughing. “I kind of like that.”
Ms. Mitchell has also discovered that a lot can go wrong in a split second. Injuries on the ice abound: a broken foot or leg, bruised ankles and, if you’re not fast enough, a smashed hand as someone’s sled crashes against yours. And then there’s always that rogue hockey puck that can bruise any unpadded area of the body.
Since Ms. Mitchell’s male teammates are mostly older, they see her as either a sister or daughter. And in the locker room, there’s an unspoken level of respect. “I do go into the locker room with them but no one strips down all the way,” she says. “They go to the bathroom to change – there’s that respect there.”
Ms. Mitchell’s even headed to the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games to support her boyfriend and RIC Blackhawks teammate, Kevin McKee, as he plays for the USA sled hockey team starting March 8.
“Being a couple and teammates isn’t hard because we both know that what happens on the ice stays on the ice,” explains Mr. McKee. “Erica deserves the recognition – she’s a great person, a great athlete and a great girlfriend.”