Lera Doederlein competes in biathlon at the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022. (Photo: Mark Reis)
Southern California isn’t particularly known for its abundance of elite athletes in winter sports. At age 19, Lera Doederlein is quickly becoming a star in two of them.
Six months ago, at the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022, Doederlein posted top-10 finishes in a pair of Nordic skiing events, taking ninth in the sitting sprint biathlon and 10th in the sitting middle-distance biathlon.
Over the final weekend of August at Green Bay’s Cornerstone Community Center, she helped the U.S. women’s sled hockey team triumph in the 2022 Para Ice Hockey Women’s World Challenge. Doederlein recorded a goal and assist in a 5-1 romp over Canada in the championship game, making the U.S. the inaugural women’s sled hockey world champions.
The transition back to the snow will be “definitely more than a week,” according to Doederlein. Winning gold so early in her career has been a powerful feeling.
“I’m still trying to transition after coming off such a big highlight,” she said.
Doederlein’s gold in Green Bay was the first exclamation point of her young sports career, and it doesn’t look like it will be her last. But she’s been working on her athletic dreams for a while now. Having grown up in Escondido, California, Doederlein began Para sports shortly after she had her legs amputated at age 14 to improve her quality of life with arthrogryposis. Through the Arizona Coyotes program, and later the San Diego Ducks, sled hockey became her passion.
As such, sled hockey holds up as “my one true love kind of sport.” Yet recently Doederlein found another winter sport that caught her eye. Two-season Paralympian Oksana Masters opened the Nordic skiing door when the two met at a handcycling camp.
Taking Masters’ invitation in 2019, Doederlein added to her range of skills. The rotation between the rink and the cross-country ski course is one of respectful turn-taking, and she hopes it will lead to all-round growth for herself.
Doederlein knows that her growing platform as a Paralympian means she has influence. Influence that could eventually support women’s sled hockey in its quest for Paralympic recognition. Although sled hockey is technically considered an open sport in the Paralympics, meaning teams can have men and women, it has effectively been a men’s sport.
“From the time that I started skiing, I’ve always felt a tad bit of pressure, just realizing over the last few years that I do have an influence on others,” she said. “Coming from someone who did go to the Games, I think it’s still important to push that, especially for the younger generation that’s coming after us.”
Doederlein is already forging crossover fan bases. Nordic skiing teammate Dani Aravich was a vocal supporter during the Women’s World Challenge. Hockey teammate Sarah Bettencourt, who skis as a hobby, will presumably lead her team in returning the favor this winter.
As an ambassador for both sports, Doederlein cites Christina Picton, a Paralympian who has competed in both Nordic skiing and sled hockey for Canada, as “kind of a role model.”
Considering her rapid rise from novice to Paralympian, Doederlein was pleased to crack the top-10 in one event at Beijing. She also reveled in watching the quartet of Jake Adicoff (with guide Sam Wood), Dan Cnossen, Masters and Sydney Peterson win gold in the cross-country mixed relay.
A student on the sidelines, Doederlein learned how team cohesion is such a big factor, whether it’s a team sport or an individual sport.
“That’s where you get so much of the work done, just having that backup,” Doederlein said.
“I have so much to learn,” she added, “and just bringing in that positive team spirit will be a big factor in helping us all grow.”
The victory in Wisconsin renewed her resolve to raise her spirit toward greater moments on the ski course, she said.
“Just seeing the fruits of your labor come together,” she said in lingering awe.
As Team USA amassed 22 tournament goals in Green Bay, Doederlein’s six points in four games equaled a hand in 27.3 percent of the offense. Her self-assessment in sled hockey could just as easily describe her skiing strides.
“To my surprise,” she said, “I was so much better than I was a few years back.”
Now with a few months before formal Nordic activity resumes with a November camp in Canmore, Alberta, Doederlein seeks more speed, strength and agility. With the latter, especially, “sled hockey definitely helps.”
And if her 2022-23 Nordic Skiing season is to match the 2022 Women’s World Challenge, Doederlein could give new heights to her blossoming Paralympic career.