GANGNEUNG, South Korea -- When Angela Ruggiero was elected to the International Olympic Committee Athletes’ Commission in 2010, she knew one of the perks of becoming an IOC member would be giving out Olympic gold medals.
She did the honors for the U.S. women’s soccer team at the Olympic Games London 2012, and then four years later for the U.S. women’s basketball team in Rio.
And Thursday night at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, Ruggiero placed gold medals around the necks of the U.S. women’s ice hockey team 20 years after she received her own gold medal in 1998.
“That was the treat of the lifetime for sure,” said Ruggiero, who also has two silver medals from 2002 and 2010 and a bronze from 2006. “I knew I had to give a gold medal to the hockey team. That was just fitting for me personally.”
It was the highest note on which to cap Ruggiero’s eight-year term as an IOC member. During the IOC Session on Sunday, Ruggiero said goodbye to the most prestigious volunteer job in the sports world.
She told her colleagues that her life is very different because she had the opportunity to compete in four Olympic Games and then spend an additional eight years in the Olympic Movement.
“It has been a complete honor to represent the athletes again and hopefully make the Olympic Movement better in some small way,” Ruggiero said.
She rose from Athletes’ Commission member to vice-chair to chair, which gave her a seat on the powerful IOC Executive Board. Before heading to the hockey gold-medal game, Ruggiero appeared at a press conference in which she discussed issues including doping and athletes’ rights.
“I don’t just represent North American athletes, I also represent the Russian athletes,” Ruggiero said. “You have to take all views into consideration and perspectives. At times it’s tricky, but in order to have that perspective, you want to hear what the perspectives are globally.”
IOC President Thomas Bach, the first chair of the athletes’ commission, praised Ruggiero, with whom he has worked closely and has appointed to important commissions.
“I know about the challenges of your role,” he said, “and that is its not always easy to get all the athletes together and to defend the interests of the athletes, but you have managed in a great way. Because of this experience, my appreciation is even greater for this achievement.”
Ruggiero, 38, has mixed emotions about leaving the IOC. She enjoyed being able to effect change, creating proposals – she’s proud to say all of which were passed by the IOC Executive Board, and make a difference.
She spoke at the United Nations and met the top leaders in the global sport industry globally.
Ruggiero was the chair of the Winter Youth Olympic Games Lillehammer 2016, keeping the project on track and helping deliver a memorable experience for the younger generation of athletes.
Ruggiero made good use of her MBA from Harvard University and her business to professionalize the athletes’ commission and provide better communication within the community, including the Athlete 365 app.
She was also a staunch advocate for women within the sports world and was a key part of the effort to bring the Olympic Games 2028 to Los Angeles, her hometown.
While Ruggiero counts those among her greatest achievements, she said, “At the same time I think it’s right that there’s term limits for athletes. I’ll always represent athletes, but I haven’t played in seven years. The ability to have new athletes that are fresh off the field and with new ideas is important.
“I obviously enjoyed my time on the IOC, giving back, and being a part of the wider Olympic movement outside of the USA and for all sports, not just hockey.”
Ruggiero was also a great resource for those who came after her.
“When I first joined she basically took me under her wing and she always made the newbies feel welcomed,” said Kirsty Coventry of Zimbabwe, the gold-medal winning swimmer who succeeded Ruggiero as chair of the Athletes’ Commission. “Part of her mentoring is she made sure that the women in the room knew and had access to everything.”
Coventry said she was impressed how Ruggiero’s “brain works in this amazing way of structuring things.”
“She’s been an incredible leader,” Coventry said. “She’s a very fair person. She always listens to everything and is kind of the rhyme to reason sometimes when you’ve got a lot of emotion. She’s very passionate about making sure athletes are at the heart of the Games and centered.
“She’s going to probably have to start blocking my phone calls because she’s just a great person to roll ideas off and chat. She may think she’s stepping away, but I don’t think anyone’s going to let her do that.”
Ruggiero is already committed to staying involved, just without the IOC member title. Ruggiero remains on the ethics commission, the digital and technology commission, the Beijing 2022 coordination commission and on the Olympic Channel board of directors.
“You will stay close to the Olympic Movement,” Bach told her, “and our paths will cross again.”
After working with the LA 2028 bid as chief strategy officer, Ruggiero expects to have a role in the organizing committee in the future.
“We’re still working through what kind of role I could play to leverage a lot of the experience I have on the IOC and the relationships to support them as they deliver the Games in Los Angeles,” Ruggiero said. “It’s another amazing opportunity for me to stay close to the movement.
She’ll also stay close with her company, The Sports Innovation Lab, which is the first market research company focused on the intersection of sports and technology. Ruggiero is co-founder and CEO of the Boston-based company.
She said she saw the need for such a company thanks to her experience on the IOC.
“We’re solving technology problems in the sports industry, which hits literally every constituent,” Ruggiero said. “Even if I’m not in an official political role, I’m thinking about how to help all these different groups, and that’s using my business hat. It’s a new way to stay involved and give back and be relevant, and tech changes every day so it’s fun to be doing that.”
While Ruggiero deftly maneuvered within the political side of sports, she was in her element when she got back on the ice at the gold-medal ice hockey game, even if she was wearing an IOC coat and necklace instead of a uniform and skates
Ruggiero played on a world championships team with eight of the 23 Team USA players and an Olympic team with six, and was able to give them hugs in addition to their medals.
“That’s what it’s all about,” she said. “Being the first person to see their faces and being that close to that much joy was just amazing for me.”