Sarah Bettencourt was training to become a U.S. Marine Corps helicopter pilot when a neurological disorder forced her to retire. Since then, she’s found another way to “fly.” She is a member of the U.S. women’s national team in sled hockey.
When Bettencourt started playing, “I was finally free of all the constraints on regular land,” she says. “And I was hitting and checking and passing and shooting and scoring.”
“I wanted to give that to other people as well and make sure everyone had that opportunity and feeling of freedom,” she says. Bettencourt and her teammates hope to get a women’s sled hockey competition in the Paralympic Games.
Sled hockey was invented in Sweden in the 1960s. It’s a version of ice hockey that allows people with physical disabilities to play. Players sit on specially designed sleds with two blades. They propel themselves with two sticks. Each has metal picks on its base. The three periods are 15 minutes long rather than 20, but the rinks, goals, and pucks are the same as traditional hockey. Sled hockey is one of many sports developed for athletes with disabilities, like wheelchair tennis and basketball, sitting volleyball, and goalball, a sport specifically designed for blind or vision-impaired players.
The Paralympic Games already have a mixed-gender division for sled hockey. But in practice, it’s essentially an all-male competition. Only three women have ever been selected for these teams since sled hockey was added to the Paralympics in 1994.
Women’s sled hockey must have a sanctioned world’s championship event in order to be considered for the Paralympic Games. Advocates plan to hold that first championship event in 2025. That could clear the way for a women’s sled hockey division to be included in the Paralympics by 2030.
A first step: The first Para Ice Hockey Women’s World Challenge took place this summer in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The U.S. team beat Canada 5-1 for a gold medal.
Organizers know they need to grow the game beyond North America, at least in the women’s division. The only three nations to field teams were the United States, Canada, and Great Britain.
The bronze medal went to a world team of players from various nations. Some were just learning the sport.
Michelle LaFlamme is the manager of World Para Ice Hockey, the sport’s international federation. “Our hope is the women who are part of the world team can go back to their countries and continue the work . . . to eventually have a national team (for their country) at the world championship,” she says.
Why? Christians follow God’s example in supporting and affirming image-bearers with disabilities. Our worth is not based on what we can or cannot do. Still, folks with disabilities are able to do plenty, including playing sports!