Wonderful Wickenheiser Inspired Greatness in Girls

The world's greatest female hockey player has hung up her skates.

Posted Jan 14, 2017

In honor of the forthcoming Warner Brothers movie "Wonder Woman" hitting the big screen in June of 2017 I'm writing an intermittent series of posts about inspiring women. Many of those I'll highlight participated in my tween book "Project Superhero." First up—Hayley Wickenheiser, Olympic hockey champion and IOC member, who announced her official retirement on Friday, January 13, 2017.

Some of Hayley's achievements:

  • Five time Olympic medalist: silver at the 1998 Winter Olympics and four Olympic gold medals in 2002, 2006, 2010, & 2014 Winter Olympics where Hayley was the flag bearer for the Canadian Olympic team in the Opening Ceremonies
  • Hayley was the first female hockey player to score a point in a men's professional game, doing so with the Kirkkonummen Salamat of the Finnish second division in January of 2003.
  • In 2008 named one of the "25 Toughest Athletes in the World" by Sports Illustrated.
  • Proud supporter of many charities and community groups including JumpStart, KidSport, Because I am a Girl, and Right to Play.

Below is the "interview" my protagonist, 13 year old "Jessie," did with Hayley Wickenheiser excerpted from "Project Superhero." Jessie learns so much about empowerment and perseverance from Hayley.

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Dear Hayley,

My aunt and my parents all think you are an awesome athlete. They are really into athletes, especially those—like you—who are super at more than one. I know you are an amazing hockey player, because I’ve watched some Olympic and World Championship games with you starring in them!

But when my Auntie G told me you were also a member of Canada’s national softball team at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia, that was news to me! So I did some research and found out you were the second woman to be in both the Winter and Summer Olympics! And the first ever doing two team sports. And then in 2003, you were the first woman to score a goal in the Finnish men’s professional hockey league! And you have multiple Olympic and World Championship Gold Medals for hockey! Wow!

I am doing a big school project about superheroes, training, and human ability—especially about girls’ ability. I’ve been looking into whether you could actually train to become Batgirl. Some of my classmates think that boys are better at sports than girls are. I don’t agree, but I have learned that it is often a lot harder for girls to do some things. Or get the chance to do some things.

Since you seem to have gone after your dreams, I was hoping you could answer some questions about your life in sports.

Hi, Jessie. Thanks so much for your letter. That sounds like an awesome school project, and I totally think you could train to become Batgirl (although I’m not sure about the costume, I’d change that). I believe that you should always go after your dreams, no matter how high or how hard they seem—that just makes you try harder! I’ll do my best at answering your questions.

I read that you started playing hockey at age five. How did you get interested in hockey in the first place? Did you get into softball at the same time?

I grew up in a family of hockey enthusiasts in a small town filled with even more hockey enthusiasts! Everyone in my family played hockey, and I grew up on the backyard rink pretending to be playing with Gretzky and Messier! My brother, sister, and I would each take turns being different players. I started softball about the same time because my parents believed that it was important to take a break from hockey. So in the summers, we’d play softball. The soul of our community was rooted in the two sports and it just made sense to be a part of that.

What was it like to play on boys’ teams when you were a kid? And what was it like to play hockey on the men’s team in Finland? Did the boys get any smarter or nicer?

Growing up playing on boys’ teams and playing against other boys’ teams wasn’t easy. I was so happy I got the chance to play hockey and, for the most part, the boys on my team were pretty good, but the parents seemed to have a harder time with it. I changed in the bathrooms instead of the locker rooms so at times I didn’t feel as tight as the rest of the team. I did seem to have a target on my back—but I’ve been told that it wasn’t just because I was a girl, it was also because I was good. I had more to prove, and there were tears of frustration and hurt feelings along the way, but it just made me push even harder!

The older “boys” in Finland were great, though there is always a sense that I have more to prove. The biggest difference there was the power and muscle capacity of the men—physiology is just different between men and women. But all my life that difference in physiology has made me push harder to grow stronger and stay in top form so I can compete.

So far, what has been the biggest challenge in your life? How did you deal with it?

I think the biggest challenge for me (and you may be surprised to hear this!) is overcoming bad losses, like when Canada won silver at the 1998 Olympics in Japan. When I go out to play, and especially when I’m representing my home country, I play to win. And when that doesn’t happen, it is really hard for me.

At the 2013 World Championship in Ottawa, we lost in the gold medal round to the U.S.A. I had hurt my back in this tournament, which was related to a knee injury that I thought had healed enough, so this loss seemed personal. I felt, to some degree, responsible. It isn’t because I think I carry the team—not by a long shot. Our team is amazing, but in that game the pieces just did not fit together. It’s easier to take the loss when you know you played your best and gave it your all.

Another challenge in my life is time management. Outside of being a full-time athlete, I’m also going to school to become a doctor and I’m also a mom to my amazing son, Noah. Juggling the time to study (and I have to study hard!), making dinner, training, driving Noah to swim practice, and so on is a daily struggle. I overcome this challenge by learning how to manage my time: making lists, keeping accountable to others, and having support through family, friends, and professionals.

Have you had any big injuries and how did you work through them?

My most recent injury, as I mentioned above, was my back spasms during the World Championship in Ottawa, 2013. At the 2006 Olympics in Turin, I played the gold medal game with a broken hand! I have to honestly admit that I don’t deal well with injury. When you are a professional athlete and something stops you from doing what you love, it is very frustrating.

I am so fortunate to have an amazing team of trainers and therapists from Hockey Canada and my own personal trainers who are excellent with treatment and rehabilitation. They help to guide me through the rest and heal stage, because that is the hardest! You have to be certain that your body is able to handle getting back on the ice without injuring yourself more.

If you go out too early, your body will tell you loud and clear!

When I told my Socials teacher that I was going to write to you, she got super excited. She said you “really support the community” and then she told me about your work with KidSport, Right to Play, and Plan Canada’s Because I Am a Girl. How did you get involved with those organizations?

I have always believed in the power and responsibility of giving back to the community and want to support organizations that align with my beliefs. I also know how hard it was growing up as a girl in a male-dominated sport, so I want to be able to help girls today overcome some of those barriers.

That passion for youth in sport naturally led me to these great organizations. My career naturally allows me to connect with girls and women not only across Canada but also around the world.

I truly believe that self-confidence and inner strength find outer expression when girls are empowered through sport.

You have an awesomely ridiculous number of gold and silver medals! (Great work, by the way!) What do you do with all of those medals?

I bring my medals with me when I speak at or visit schools. I believe I share the medals with all Canadians, so I want everyone to be able to see, touch, and experience them. I know athletes who keep their medals locked up, but I’d rather let people see them and be inspired by the story of how I got them—the journey is so much more important than the hardware.

Do you have a favorite superhero?

I’d have to say Superman. Possibly because of his superhuman strength and speed, and that x-ray vision is pretty cool. I wish I had that!

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With thanks to #22 wonderful Hayley Wickenheiser for her inspirational life and efforts for others!

(c) E. Paul Zehr (2017)