Andy Yohe is back.
Yohe, 35, was a member of the bronze medal winning U.S. Sled Hockey Team at the Torino 2006 Paralympic Winter Games and the gold-medal-winning team at the Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Winter Games.
His wife Katie was seven months pregnant during the Vancouver Games, so after winning gold, he decided to step away from the sport to be with his family.
“Anybody that plays disabled sports knows that you’re not going to get super rich doing it,” Yohe said. “Being 31 and having a kid, you’ve got to start focusing on working somewhere and creating a life for your family. If you want to be around at all, watching your kids grow up, you definitely can miss a lot of that.”
Today Andy, Katie, and daughter Abby, now 3, are one happy bunch. He works at a prosthetic and orthotic company and has maintained his fitness despite three seasons away from competitive sport. Abby even likes to join her dad for “workouts” in their basement gym.
“She likes hanging from the different bars down there, and she bounces on the BOSU ball,” he said. “We have a couple of bands. She puts them on and thinks she’s getting a workout in, but she’s definitely playing.”
In just days, the Yohe family will welcome one more. Katie is pregnant again, this time with a son.
But the Yohe's routine is about to change even more, and not just because of the new baby.
This year, Yohe decided to emerge from retirement and return to the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team, where he was named team captain. He will serve the same role on the 2014 U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey Team, which was nominated on Dec. 11.
(The United States Olympic Committee will name the entire 2014 U.S. Paralympic Team for alpine skiing, biathlon, cross-country skiing, sled hockey, snowboarding and wheelchair curling on Feb. 21.)
Yohe will be heading to Sochi, Russia, to compete at the Paralympic Winter Games from March 7-16.
The decision to return to the sport was not an easy one, nor was it made quickly. But both Yohe and his wife knew that he longed to compete at the Paralympics again.
“He needed me to tell him it was okay,” Katie said. “It’s not necessarily the ideal situation to have a baby in December and have him leave for a month in March, but I know it’s something that will make him really happy. He’s really invested in it, he takes a lot of pride in it, and that kind of makes the whole thing worth it at the end of the day.”
The two talked at length about what it means to be a part of Team USA at the Paralympic Winter Games. It was ultimately an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.
“Any big athlete will tell you, their spouse better be on board with them, otherwise it’s definitely going to be a tough run,” he said. “I’m lucky she knows how much happier I am when I’m doing what I want to do.”
Even after three seasons away, Yohe has been welcomed back to the U.S. Team by coaches, teammates and staff. National team manager Dan Brennan said the players, who range in age from 15-35, value Yohe’s experience and appreciate his leadership style.
“He’s got a ton of character and a never-ending ability to work his tail off, so he’s very, very well-respected by his teammates,” Brennan said. “When he came back to the team, Josh Pauls, one of our good offensive players, had his old number. He immediately gave it back to him without any kind of bargaining or anything, which speaks volumes about how they look at him as a person.”
Katie, too, sees traits in her husband that make him a natural leader.
“He really doesn’t let anybody tell him no or that he can’t do something. He always figures out a way to get it done,” Katie said. “He’s probably more disciplined than anyone I have ever met in my whole life ... I think Andy’s really patient and he’s fair, and he’s somebody that the younger players look up to.”
But Yohe’s return came with its fair share of uncertainty, especially since some of the assistant coaches had never seen him play.
“He was probably wondering if he still had it, you know?” Brennan said. “He was probably looking at things like, ‘Look how fast these young guys are. Can I keep up with them?’ and all those natural reactions after you come back. But he keeps himself in such great shape, and I think he found that it’s not as hard as he thought it would be.”
For Yohe, the struggle hasn’t been about fitness as much as mental strength.
“Honestly, the biggest thing is that once you’ve played the game at that level for a while, you have a pretty good idea of what to expect, but playing under pressure is not really something you can practice on your own,” he said. “It’s so much faster at the international level than anything else. Everything’s got to happen in half a second. So really I guess I was most rusty on that. I just need more games under my belt.”
Andy, along with the seven other 2010 U.S. Paralympians on the 2014 team, know what it’s like to win gold on the world stage – and they want that feeling again.
“We’re definitely going to compete in Sochi, there’s no doubt about it,” Andy said. “We have an opportunity to win a gold medal. We’ve just got to show up and work together, work hard.”
Team USA earned a silver medal at the 2013 World Sledge Hockey Challenge earlier this month, falling to Canada 3-1 in the gold medal match. The team will get a chance to face Canada again in a three game series from Jan. 9-11 in Indian Trail, N.C.