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Sled Hockey Gold Medalist Jen Lee Focuses On The Present One Year Out From The Winter Paralympics

By Jen Lee | March 04, 2021, 7 a.m. (ET)

Goalkeeper Jen Lee of the United States celebrates the gold medal after the gold medal game between United States and Canada during day nine of the Paralympic Games PyeongChang 2018 on March 18, 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea. 

 

I am super excited about the Paralympic Winter Games. Normally the "countdown" for the Winter Games starts two years out when the Summer Games happen, but the Tokyo postponement due to the pandemic kind of threw us off. 

Next thing you know, we’re a year out so it’s all “go time” as far as getting back our focus, getting back in the rhythm, starting to play really good hockey and getting our chemistry back with our teammates.

It’s an honor just to be able to have another chance to go to the Paralympics. Right now, nothing is set and they won't announce the final roster until a few months prior to the games. If I do get selected, this will be my third time representing Team USA at the Winter Paralympic Games so fingers crossed! My previous Games (2014 and 2018) had different preparation and expectations for me. 

I just knew the first time, before Sochi in 2013, that the focus was hopefully getting selected and making the final roster after the success of making the national team for three seasons prior. The second time, before PyeongChang, I was actually battling to get back on the national team because I was sent down to our development team for two seasons. So going into the tryouts for the PyeongChang roster, I knew I had to give everything I’ve got and leave everything on the ice. 

Fast forward to now, it’s a little bit different. COVID-19 has a lot to do with it, but the goal has never changed. A lot of us have been getting together, skating and training on and off the ice, and we’re hoping a year from now we’ll be able to get the job done again. 

We don’t really think about the pressure of winning our fourth straight gold medal. Obviously, we understand the success of the program and we’ve had great coaching staffs and general managers, but it’s all about focusing on the present moment and winning the next one that matters – the World Championships in the Czech Republic this June. After that, we will turn our focus to the Paralympic Games. 

After our last season ended in February, the entire country shut down due to COVID-19, and the majority of us couldn't train for a couple of months. It was definitely tough because normally in the summer, we have a select camp for youth and upcoming development players in Buffalo, New York. The camp normally lasts about a week, followed by a national team tryout for a couple of days, but those events were postponed until further notice. 

Our 2020-21 season should have started as early as September or October, including our club league season, but that was postponed as well. 

In late February, some of the players got together for a training camp in Colorado. We were very happy to be able to get back on the ice and just excited to compete again. For me personally, there were a couple of players I haven’t seen since our season ended last year, so it was definitely exciting to see everybody. 

You can always train by yourself or with two or three other guys, but until you have enough players to do a full-ice scrimmage, you can’t really get a good sense of where you are conditioning-wise. And training in Colorado, where the altitude is higher, also can whip you up into shape in no time. 

For the guys who are skating, you can only train so much by working on your own finesse or different skill sets, but in the end they always want a goalie to shoot at. The same is true for us goalies. We can’t really do that much unless we have a shooter. It goes hand-in-hand. We want to be in top shape for our upcoming national training camps and tryouts for the World Championships.

For me, being part of Team USA gives me the ability not only to represent my country, but I also value the camaraderie of all my teammates. I was a military service veteran prior to being hurt, and the chemistry and the bond that we've created on and off the ice with my teammates is something I will never forget. It brought back a similar joy of competing and validation that I can represent my country a different way. In the end, it's about the memories we've created together, good or bad. Luckily for us, we’ve been very fortunate that we’re able to create a lot of good memories.

When I tell people I play para ice hockey for the U.S. national team, they assume I played in the NHL or somewhere professional. As soon as they see my prosthetic leg, the next question they usually ask is, ‘How are you playing hockey with a prosthetic leg?’ They don’t really process or acknowledge the word “sled” or "para" a lot. 

I think the biggest misconception about Paralympics in general is that some people still mistakenly think that we’re the Special Olympics. Sometimes people think sled hockey is a sport that we play in a wheelchair. When they find out it’s not wheelchair hockey, they can’t picture what a sled is so they think it’s a special sled and they call it special hockey. That terminology then leads people to think it is the Special Olympics.

Even though people are becoming more aware of the Paralympics, you’re still going to have a good amount of people, particularly sometimes in foreign countries where disability is not as exposed as it is here in the United States, who have that misconception or misunderstanding. 

Hockey is a very physical and high intensity sport. I used to play inline hockey growing up. I wasn’t really good at my footwork so one day my teammates said, ‘Why don’t you try to stop some shots in front of the net?’ Immediately I started playing goalie as an inline player. I fell in love with it. Hockey didn't last long in my childhood because it wasn't a popular sport in California so many schools, including mine, removed the hockey program completely. 

When I heard about Paralympic sled hockey, I was very surprised at first because I didn’t even know there were sports for people with disabilities. Of course the first thing I said is, ‘I’m going to try to play goalie and see if that will work out.’

There are only two spots for goalies on the national team and there are spots on the development team as well. I've had the privilege to play on both the national and development team, and one thing I can tell you is you can't get complacent. The players on the D-team are as hungry as we are, so you have to put in the work and be ready to compete at any time. 

I enjoy being a goalie because the players or the fans are expecting the puck to go in. When you are able to stop a shot, you can hear the disappointment from the audience as you rob their team from scoring a goal. And that is music to my ears. 

Jen Lee

Jen Lee is a two-time Paralympian and two-time Paralympic champion in the sled hockey. He made his debut for Team USA as a goaltender on the gold medal-winning squad at the Paralympic Winter Games Sochi 2014. Lee is a retired staff sergeant in the U.S. Army and part of the Army’s World Class Athletes Program. He is currently training to represent Team USA at the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022.

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Jen Lee

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