Interview with Karen Smith, USA Women’s Sled Hockey Team Goalie
Q. They say the goalie is either the “bum” or the “hero,” why did you choose that position?
Our team was brand new and we’d been scrimmaging for a while, getting used to the sleds, the ice, and learning the game. One day our coach said, “Okay, we’re going to play a game today, who wants to be in the net.” There was a roar of “Not me!” from all my teammates, so in essence, I volunteered? Ironically, it totally clicked for me and that’s where I am to this day, between the posts.
Q. You were diagnosed with MS in your mid-30’s. Can you tell me a bit about what you went through in hearing that.
It actually took them 3 years to make a diagnosis. One of my initial symptoms was back pain, so they thought I had a slipped disc. I was in the hospital when the doctor told me I had MS and that I may not be able to walk. I was a major skier at that point, hoping to make the Olympic team, and my first question was, “But can I ski?” Just didn’t connect.
Q. How did you get from that point to being the top woman’s sled hockey goalie?
After the diagnosis I learned about Jimmie Heuga, a 1964 Olympic bronze medal skier, who had MS. He’d been told to NOT exercise, but did any way, and it helped him to feel better. I followed his lead.
I’m human, so I did go through a “woe is me” phase. They didn’t have an adaptive ski program in Connecticut at the time and going to Colorado just wasn’t a possibility. I love participating in sports so I played tennis. At one point I was ranked in the top 100 players in the U.S. in wheelchair tennis.
My introduction to hockey was watching a friend play and really liking the game. When I heard they were putting together a sled hockey team for women, I signed on. I’ve always enjoyed participating in sports and wanted to experience the spirit that goes with being part of a team. Once I got on the ice, something sparked.
It can be a struggle at times as MS is very unpredictable. From one day to the next you don’t know how you’re going to feel. One day I’ll wake up with double vision or an arm that just doesn’t work right. There have been games where I’ve been working hard, getting hammered and then get over heated. Heat’s the worst. I have to find ways to cool myself down and my Coach is great about knowing when I need ice and a cooling vest between periods.
Q. On those days where you are struggling, what drives you?
Just being part of a team and accomplishing something I shouldn’t be able to. Plus my teammates are phenomenal and the camaraderie is amazing.
In the hospital they told me a lot of what I “couldn’t” do. I don’t like that word. I’m like a 3 year old you say “no” to. Doesn’t work. I like showing people what I CAN do. Know your limits, and then break them. Keep moving. If you sit still with MS it will become the boss and take over.
Q. Tell me 5 things I don’t know about “Karen”
- I’m a hippie from way back when. I get my daily inspiration from John Denver. His song “To the Wild Country” reflects how my turning to nature and being outdoors focuses me when life gets to crazy or tough.
- After 40 years working in Emergency Veterinary Medicine I’m now working as a personal trainer and exercise specialist, specializing in medical fitness.
- I live on the beach.
- For my 50th birthday, the day before major shoulder surgery, I went skydiving.
- I have a kitten with a moustache named Luigi.
Q. Favorite Movie
Q. Favorite Song
Back to John Denver and “To the Wild Country.”
If I’m getting ready for a game, Queen, specifically “Don’t Stop me Now,” “We Will Rock You,” and “Another One Bites the Dust.”
Q. So, 2018? Tell me what’s going to happen?
In November of 2014 our USA sled hockey team took gold in the first ever IPC sanctioned Women’s World Cup in Toronto. It was a huge step toward advancing the sport. So in 2018, I see the first ever women’s sled hockey at the Paralympic games in South Korea.
Q. Any last thoughts you’d like to share?
I try to do random acts of kindness every day. It’s so easy and so rewarding.