Olympic gold medalist speaks to PCI students

Laura Shantora Nelles, Central Plains Herald-Leader

In support of the 2010 Powersmart Manitoba Winter Games being hosted by Portage la Prairie in March of 2010, Canadian Olympic gold medalist Sami Jo Small was on hand Nov. 4 at Portage Collegiate Institute where she gave students an inspiring talk about lighting the fire within.

"You don't always get to choose your role in life, but you do get to choose how you play it," she said, addressing the gym full of Grade 9 and 10 students.

She opened her talk with a story about how she became a hockey player. Growing up in Winnipeg, Small always wanted to play road hockey with her older brother Luke. At the age of 3, she joined her brother and his friends. Her brother announced, "We found ourselves a goalie." Luke strapped a set of pads to his younger sister, which she recalled, "came up to my neck," and plunked her in net.

"About five minutes into the game, my brother winds up this slapshot and nails me right in the eye. Blood was coming out, and I started to cry."

Small said her brother was trying to evade punishment from their parents and wiped the blood and tears from her face and told her, "Hockey players don't cry."

Growing up, she said it was unacceptable for girls to play hockey. At the age of 7, she was playing with a boys team, and someone yelled from the stands, "Women belong in the kitchen!" However, at her young age, she didn't understand the comment, returned to the bench and asked the coaching staff, "What am I supposed to be doing in the kitchen?"

She recalled a story of how having an Olympic athlete speak at her high school inspired her.

"Playing hockey in the Olympics wasn't my dream because at the time, women's hockey wasn't an Olympic sport. I wanted to play in the NHL."

She followed her career as an athlete to Stanford University, where she attended on a track and field scholarship. After graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering, Small elected not to follow her classmates to high-paying jobs in the Silicon Valley, but to return to Canada to train for hockey for no pay.

The Canadian women's hockey team attended the Nagano Olympics in 1998, where they won the silver medal. Despite initial feelings of loss, having been defeated in the gold medal game by the Americans after all that hard work, she said, "It was a tough pill to swallow, but we were second best in the whole world." She added being second best in the whole world at anything is pretty amazing, and the team boarded the plane back to Canada. Upon their return, they were greeted with newspaper headlines saying things like Team Canada had let the country down.

"Newspapers say things like that about sports teams all the time - you read that on occasion about the Toronto Maple Leafs," she said. But this was different. This was her team.

The team got back to work for another four years, preparing for the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. In preparation for the Games, the team played eight games against Team USA. They lost all eight games.

"We got to play in all the major arenas, though. We played in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Chicago. To hear 15,000 people screaming their heads off for women's hockey ..."

The team prevailed when it mattered, though. The women made it all the way to the gold medal game at the Olympics, where they would face the Americans.

Small recalled the story of how she felt the day before the gold medal game at the Salt Lake City winter Olympics in 2002, when she was told she would not be starting the gold medal game, and the job had been tasked to her netminding counterpart Kim St. Pierre.

"I was so sad, and so angry," she said. "I walked around the athletes' village for hours in tears. I was so close to my dream, and to have it taken away, it felt like a death in the family. I didn't know what to do."

She said when she returned, she decided she had two options. She could wake up in the morning and feel the same way, or to play the role as best she could.

"I did whatever it took to support my teammates. I filled their waterbottles, I told them jokes, and I was one of the first ones over the boards when the buzzer went."

In closing, she parted with the notion that students should strive for excellence.

"Start to dream - what are your ultimate dreams? Every one of you is capable of greatness."

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