GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) — Sarah Bettencourt was training to become a U.S. Marine Corps helicopter pilot when a neurological disorder forced her to retire.
She’s found a new mission in an entirely different arena.
Bettencourt, who played hockey in high school, recaptured her appreciation of the game and is now a member of the U.S. women’s national team in sled hockey, a game that originated about half a century ago in Sweden for players with various physical disabilities.
“The first time I got on the ice, I felt like I was flying,” Bettencourt said.
Players sit on specially designed sleds that sit atop two blades and propel themselves with two sticks with metal picks on the base. The three periods are 15 minutes long rather than 20.
Bettencourt fell in love with the game as soon as she started playing it.
“I was finally free of all the constraints on regular land,” Bettencourt said. “And I was hitting and checking and passing and shooting and scoring. It was amazing. I wanted to give that to other people as well and make sure everyone had that opportunity and feeling of freedom they don’t always feel on regular land.”
The long-term plan for Bettencourt and her teammates is to get a women’s sled hockey competition in the Paralympic Games, which has a mixed-gender division for sled hockey, though 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: Norway’s Brit Mjaasund at Lillehammer in 1994, Norway’s Lena Schroeder at Pyeongchang in 2018 and China’s Yu Jing at Beijing in 2022.
“We deserve this as much as the men do,” said Raphaelle Tousignant, a Canadian sled hockey player. “We’re working hard, maybe even harder than the men because we need to grow the game and be good athletes, too.”
They took the initial step toward that goal by holding the first Para Ice Hockey Women's World Challenge, held Aug. 26-28 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The U.S. team beat Canada 5-1 for the gold medal.
“It’s probably the greatest feeling in the world right now,” said Erica McKee, the captain of the U.S. team. “It’s as if we won the Stanley Cup.”
The tournament underscored the need to grow this game beyond North America, at least in the women’s division. The only three nations to field teams were the U.S., Canada and Great Britain.
The bronze medal went to a World team comprised of players from various nations, some of whom were just learning the sport.
“Our hope is the women who are part of the world team can go back to their countries and continue the work at the grass-roots level to get enough women to eventually have a national team (for their country) at the world championship,” said Michelle LaFlamme, the manager of World Para Ice Hockey, the sport’s international federation.
Laflamme said women’s sled hockey must have a sanctioned world’s championship event in order to get considered for the Paralympic Games. A target date of 2025 has been set for that first championship event, which could clear the way for a women’s sled hockey division to be added to the Paralympic Games by 2030.
“We’re so excited to see what all these other nations are going to bring,” Bettencourt said. “They're going to watch this and say we want to be there next year, and they're going to keep growing and pushing each other and this level of (play) is going to get better and better.”