Alex Rigsby talks with children at Ice Hockey in Harlem, as part of the Team for Tomorrow community outreach program, on June 18, 2018 in New York.
NEW YORK — In Upper Manhattan on Monday night, between puck-handling and one-on-one drills, passing around her Olympic gold medal and taking photos, Alex Rigsby offered a few words of advice to 25 youngsters from Ice Hockey in Harlem.
Be selective about who you hang out with. Don’t expect anything to come easy. And never, ever give up.
"It’s awesome to be able to share the journey it took to get to this moment, with all of these kids,” said the 26-year-old Rigsby, a goalie with four world titles to her name, who was on the U.S. roster but did not play at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018. “It’s really fun to go out there and play hockey with them and try to inspire them to play sports, (whether) it’s hockey, soccer, whatever it is, and keep active.”
About 250 youngsters aged 5 through 18 are enrolled in Ice Hockey in Harlem, including more than 75 girls. Children aged 5 to 10 are accepted into a Learn to Skate program, followed by a Learn to Play program the next season. After that, they join teams in their age groups.
“All of our kids were really focused on the Olympics this year,” said Brad Preston, program manager for Ice Hockey in Harlem. “They knew the women’s team had a chance to win gold, they had heard about their rivalry with Canada and everybody was talking about the (sudden death) shootout the day it happened. That somebody on the U.S. team cared enough to come up to Harlem to share the experience was a real thrill.”
Rigsby visited Ice Hockey in Harlem as an ambassador for the United States Olympic Committee’s Team for Tomorrow, a community outreach program that helps athletes give back to communities and spread the Olympic values of excellence, friendship and respect. Here are some nuggets from her motivational talk:
Focus on the long-term. A Delafield, Wisconsin, native who took to the ice at age 5, Rigsby began dreaming of the Olympic Games at age 5, when she watched the U.S. women’s ice hockey team win gold in Nagano. But early in her career, she remembered, many people told her she simply wasn’t good enough.
“I’m a very goal-oriented person. You guys all have so much ahead of you,” said Rigsby, “I played boys’ hockey for 13 years. … I had to work twice as hard to prove myself as a player.”
Eventually, her teammates became like brothers, and looked out for her on the ice. By the time she reached the seventh grade, she had traveled all over the country playing hockey, as well as Sweden and Russia.
Alex Rigsby poses for a photo with her gold medal and a youth hockey player at Ice Hockey in Harlem, as part of the Team for Tomorrow community outreach program, on June 18, 2018 in New York.
Elsa Jimenez thinks her 10-year-old son Santiago will remember Rigsby’s words for a long time.
“(This visit) is a really, really good opportunity,” she said. “Santiago is thinking about everything she said. The message was don’t give up, it’s not easy, you have to do it, a lot of things will get in your way. It’s a lesson for life.”
Expect obstacles. Rigsby recounted some of her career setbacks, none worse than major hip surgery just as she started her college career at the University of Wisconsin.
“I had really big hip surgery at 18 or 19, that I had to overcome,” she said. “My first doctor told me that I would never play hockey at an elite level again, and here I wanted to play for the Badgers and at the Olympics someday! I made sure I did everything I could to get back.”
These words, especially, resonated with the young audience.
“She got hurt, but she kept going,” Julian Taylor, 10, said. “Now she has a gold medal.”
Watch out for the French fries. Even when they’re young, Rigsby explained, athletes need to take care of their bodies.
“It’s about eating the right foods, drinking enough water, getting enough sleep,” she said. “(When I was young) I wasn’t eating sugary foods all of the time. I may have wanted ice cream, but I didn’t have it too much.”
“I had a lot of people ask me, ‘Why do you have to go to practice? Why can’t you come to dinner with me? Why can’t we go to the movies?’” Rigsby said. “I had to make the right decisions and surround myself with a group that really believed in me and supported me.”
Janet Camacho’s 8-year-old daughter Ariana has been part of Ice Hockey in Harlem for several years.
“I especially liked the talk about teamwork,” she said. “(Playing hockey) has helped Ariana be more social with other children her age.”
Put academics first. Rigsby visited the University of Wisconsin as a young teenager, was shown the Badger locker room and immediately had visions of playing on the team. But she knew it wouldn’t happen unless she got good grades.
“I traveled a lot (playing hockey),” she said. “In the eighth and ninth grades, I was driving to Chicago four hours a day. I had to get all of my schoolwork done in the car … I had to communicate with all of my teachers, tell them, ‘I will be out this Friday, how do I make up the work?’ Grades are so important.”
If you really want something, don’t give up on it. By the summer of 2013, Rigsby was a senior at Wisconsin and one of four goalies trying out for three spots on the U.S. team — the squad that would compete at the 2014 Sochi Games. She didn’t make it.
“I got cut... I had to go back to finish off my senior year of college, and I was able to go back and lean on my teammates for support,” she said. “After my senior year, I had to make the decision: am I going to continue to play hockey and pursue my dream, or am I going to enter the working world?”
Alex Rigsby speaks to children at Ice Hockey in Harlem, as part of the Team for Tomorrow community outreach program, on June 18, 2018 in New York.
Rigsby, of course, chose to stick with hockey, and was part of the 2018 team that defeated Canada to win the first U.S. Olympic gold medal since 1998.“I didn’t take anything for granted,” she said. “I was accountable for my training, day in and out, and making sure I made that team and they had no reason to cut me.”
Kataura Lampert, a 10-year-old who has been part of Ice Hockey in Harlem for five years, summed it up best.
“Alex really persevered,” she said. “Playing hockey instills teamwork, being kind to one another and plus, it’s just fun.”
Rigsby still has a lot to give her sport. This summer, she’s splitting her time between Madison, Wisconsin and Manhattan, taking part in several hockey camps. She’s engaged to marry Aidan Cavallini, a former Badger hockey player now studying for his master’s in finance, next June. And she’s already looking forward to the 2019 world championships, to be held in Espoo, Finland.
“Team tryouts are in September, and then it’s getting prepared for (the Four Nations Cup) in November, and then another tryout for the world championships,” Rigsby said. “It’s so competitive. The player pool keeps getting deeper and deeper, so every camp you have to be ready to compete and play your best.”
The ultimate goal? A second Olympic team in Beijing in 2022.
“I’m really lucky to have such a supportive fiancé, who knows how passionate I am about hockey,” she said. “I know I can keep playing, and I definitely want to keep playing, as long as everything falls into place.”