WENTZVILLE, Mo. – Katie Ladlie had only learned about sled hockey two months ago, yet on Saturday she maneuvered on the ice along with members of the 2013-14 U.S. National Sled Hockey Team as if she had been participating in this sport much longer.
“She’ll try anything,” said her father, Jim. “It’s just amazing. She doesn’t think this stuff is different. She’s probably our most competitive child, but never had the opportunity. What’s cool about this, too, is she can be part of a team, too, now.”
Ladlie was one of dozens of prospective disabled athletes participating this past weekend in the Gateway to Gold program at the Lindenwood Ice Arena, near St. Louis, along with the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team.
Gateway to Gold is a new initiative started in September by the United States Olympic Committee that is giving the U.S. Paralympics a chance to introduce sports to new athletes and possibly find potential new national team members. Olympians, including skier Bode Miller, are serving as ambassadors for Gateway to Gold in an effort to encourage people with physical and visual disabilities to dream of competing for Team USA.
The Disabled Athletes Sports Association, a Paralympic Sport Club that has produced elite level athletes including sled hockey player Steve Cash, a Paralympic gold medalist, hosted this weekend’s event, which served mostly as a way to introduce sled hockey to people with physical challenges and hopefully get them involved.
The event was part of a three-day training session for the U.S. sled team as it prepares for the upcoming 2013 World Sledge Hockey Challenge, Dec. 1-7 in Toronto, and the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games, March 7-16. Besides working out, the national team also attended a St. Louis Blues game, where the sled hockey players got to meet some of the Blues players, and visited a St. Louis Rams practice.
They also spent time on the ice in Wentzville, Mo., just outside St. Louis, with young athletes such as Ladlie.
Ladlie, now 13, was born with a malformation with no cartilage in her left knee. After more than a dozen surgeries, she was given the choice of having her leg fused together where she wouldn't be able to bend it or have it amputated.
She chose the latter. Two months later she was ready to find a sport that fit her talents and personality. Two years later, with the help of DASA, she found sled hockey.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” said Ladlie, of Troy, Mo., and eldest of the four Ladlie children. “It’s been important because I finally know what it’s like to be on a team, now, and how important it is. I feel like all the other guys on the team.”
Jeff Sauer is gearing up for his first Paralympic Winter Games as head coach for the U.S. men’s team, which won the gold medal in Vancouver in 2010. He carries almost the identical roster into the Sochi Winter Games in March with only five different players from the gold-medal team’s roster.
He said that’s not tremendously surprising being that sled hockey is relatively new in the United States. There wasn’t a national team until 1990, and the first international competition was in 1994.
So the Gateway to Gold program serves a valuable purpose by getting people — especially younger athletes and veterans — involved in the sport.
“We’re more trying to promote the sport,” he said. “We have a pool of about 40 players that I would put as world-class players. The military guys have been a real plus for us. In our whole program, we probably have seven or eight military guys. They bring a discipline to the program that we maybe didn’t have before.”
Kelly Behlmann, president of DASA, agreed. She’s worked closely with the Ladlie family and isn’t expecting for someone like Katie to be an elite player in the first few months of being in the sport.
But maybe in four years someone who was at the event at Lindenwood Ice Arena this past Saturday might find their name on one of the Team USA rosters.
“With any athletics, you have got to introduce them, make sure they have the right adaptive equipment, make sure they have the right coaching and techniques,” Behlmann said. “Then, they become those Paralympic hopefuls. It’s not somebody who walks in off the street. They have to be introduced and engaged in a community program like DASA before we can get them to the Paralympic level.”
The Gateway for Gold program will continue through the end of the year with talent identification events for swimming in Lake Forest, Ill., (Nov. 17), wheelchair basketball in New Orleans (Dec. 13), alpine skiing in Park City, Utah, (Nov. 29) and wheelchair tennis in Franconia, N.H. (Dec. 14).
Jason L. Young is a communication specialist based in the St. Louis area who has written for The Associated Press wire, The New York Times, The Dallas Morning News and dozens of other publications. He is a freelance contributor to USParalympics.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.