By Darryl McGrath
Sunday, March 24, 2002
Women and girls are a growing presence in competitions for disabled athletes. The new U.S. National Amputee Hockey Team is the latest draw for these talented women, who otherwise would miss the chance to play with other disabled athletes.
LAKE PLACID, N.Y. (WOMENSENEWS)--Competitive ice hockey is so second nature to Heather Ewasiuk and Joanne Lukasik that it's impossible to tell they are both skating on prosthetic devices as they glide across the rink.
Amputees as well as athletes for most of their lives, Ewasiuk and Lukasik are the first and so far only female members of the startup U.S. National Amputee Hockey Team. Ewasiuk skates on an artificial left foot; Lukasik has prosthetic legs below the knees.
For Ewasiuk, 17, a high school senior in St. Paul, Minn., and Lukasik, 45, a wife and mother from Ortonville, Mich., their memberships on the team are just the latest accomplishments in athletic careers that have emphasized ability and determination over physical limitations. Their yearlong membership on the national amputee team marks the first time either has played officially with other amputees and with men.
"I really don't think of it as out of the ordinary," Ewasiuk said. "I used to, but now that I do it all the time, it's natural. I really don't think of myself as handicapped, because all my life, I've played with able-bodied players."
Both Ewasiuk and Lukasik are part of a growing presence by women in organized sports competitions for disabled athletes.
While it is unclear how many women and girls are participating in disabled-athlete programs in the United States, Disabled Sports USA officials say they've made the development of female athletes a priority, and believe that women are making notable gains.
Women are the most active participants in winter Alpine skiing, and American women racers are winning far more medals than their male counterparts--in some cases sweeping the medals in Alpine and other ski events at the Paralympics that just ended in Salt Lake City, said Kathy Celo, operations and program services manager for Disabled Sports USA.
The organization, which supports handicapped athletes, received a $50,000 grant three years ago from the U.S. Olympic Committee that funded training camps, travel and expenses for female disabled athletes.
Disabled women "have really jumped into sports involvement in this past decade," said Kirk Bauer, executive director of Disabled Sports USA. "Their hesitancy to wear shorts and prostheses in public has been greatly reduced, and they are involved in volleyball, skiing, water skiing, sailing, tennis, cycling, track and field, weightlifting and many other sports."
Lukasik, a seasoned, competitive player on an all-women hockey league outside of Detroit, used to keep her disability a secret from her opponents so that she would not become a target for the able-bodied players she traditionally faced on the ice. Competing with other amputees was a revelation.
"When I first got the call inviting me to the first amputee team, I was amazed there were others competing in that situation," Lukasik said. "For 30 years, I thought I was the only one."
She and Ewasiuk joined their teammates in Salt Lake City on March 16 for an exhibition game, part of their team's effort to make amputee hockey a recognized Paralympic sport. The Canadian team won 8-0, but since the United States had just won gold in ice sledge hockey, an official Paralympic event in which disabled players sit on small sleds, rather than stand on skates, hockey was a hot sport at the games and "everyone was excited about watching us play," said David Chandonnet, the U.S. team's manager.
Both women on the amputee hockey team say strong support systems figured in their athletic development.
Ewasiuk was born with a club foot that developed complications and had to be amputated when she was six months old. Her father and brother both played hockey, and Ewasiuk started playing competitively in fourth grade with the encouragement of her parents, Fern and Dale Ewasiuk.
"We never said 'No,'" recalled Dale Ewasiuk, who referees for the team. "We let her decide what she can and can't do. She plays high school tennis, which is quite a surprise to a lot of people."
Lukasik, a Canadian native, was 16 when she lost her legs in an accident on her family's farm in southern Ontario. She was working alone one day when she slipped and got caught in a machine used to shoot cattle feed into a silo.
"By every medical textbook, I should be dead today," Lukasik said. "Everything was severed; it was 20 minutes before anyone found me."
She had been a hockey player before the accident, and during her recovery she held onto her hope of playing again.
"I can recall asking my doctor at the time, 'Will I ever be able to skate again?'" Lukasik said. "He looked at me and said--and it's been the best advice anyone ever gave me--'If there's something you want to do, there's no reason you can't do it.' So less than a year after the accident, I was back on skates."
The U.S. National Amputee Hockey Team was founded almost two years ago in Stoughton, Mass., a Boston suburb. The team traces its origins to 1999, when Dr. David Crandell, a physiatrist who works with disabled athletes, and his colleague Mark Pitkin, a rehabilitation engineer, started brainstorming ways to get amputees into sports.
Pitkin organized a Russian amputee hockey team and arranged for those players to visit the United States. The exhibition games were such a success that when Russia hosted the World Ice Hockey Championships in 2000, Pitkin and Crandell organized an American amputee team to travel to Russia for games against amputees there.
Formation of the American Amputee Hockey Association followed, and the U.S. team to which Lukasik and Ewasiuk belong now competes against Russian and Canadian amputee teams. It has been sanctioned by USA Hockey and Disabled Sports USA.
Team officials say that both women have made valuable contributions.
"I don't know how many women players there are internationally," Crandell said. "I don't think we'll ever have enough to have an international women's team. But this enables them to continue skating. It's based on ability, not sex."
In a recent competition in Lake Placid, N.Y., the Americans beat the Russians but lost to the Canadians. Lukasik was the only goalie able to make the Lake Placid competition, so a teammate filled in as a second goalie to help her. Ewasiuk, who was declared the most valuable player in last year's competition against the Canadians, played a tough defense against men who were almost all older and larger than she is.
They say they have been fully accepted by their male teammates. The easy camaraderie both display on and off the ice with their teammates confirms that.
"I think it's great," said Andrew Trivero of Monroe, N.Y., a college sophomore who plays on the team with Ewasiuk and Lukasik and lost a leg to cancer at age 14. "I've never been one to say whatever a guy can do, a woman can do, but once we're out there, we're all one team."
Both women play with regular hockey skates on their prostheses. There is no checking in amputee hockey, but it's still a rough game. Ewasiuk crashed into the boards with a Canadian player in the Lake Placid competition, and was knocked down twice during the first period, but quickly got up and re-entered the fray. She has described playing against such accomplished athletes as "challenging and an honor."
In a competition a few years ago in her women's league, Lukasik got hit so hard that one of her artificial legs detached and skittered across the ice. Her able-bodied team had never publicized the fact that she was an amputee, fearing that she would become a target for opposing players. So when the mishap occurred, her opponents gaped in shock at the prosthetic leg lying on the ice, and the player who had slammed into her "just about fainted on the spot," Lukasik recalled, laughing.
Hockey has caught on more slowly than other sports for disabled women athletes. Officials and players with the U.S. National Amputee Hockey Team don't know of any all-female leagues or teams for disabled players.
"Hockey is generally a less popular sport for able-bodied female athletes," said Chandonnet, the U.S. Amputee Hockey Team manager. "Therefore, I believe it is generally less popular for disabled female athletes than other sports as well."
The overall surge in disabled sports for women comes as the field of disabled sports is still mourning Diana Golden Brosnihan, a gold medalist in disabled skiing at the 1988 Calgary Olympics who died in August of the bone cancer that returned after her leg was amputated in childhood. She was 38.
Brosnihan had become famous for her fiercely competitive Alpine performances using only one ski. She went on to a second career as an acclaimed motivational speaker, helping to change public perceptions of disabled athletes even while fighting recurrences of the cancer that eventually killed her.
"Because of Diana, this sport for women has just opened up," Celo said. "Diana's love was Alpine, but she spoke about women in sports."
As for Lukasik and Ewasiuk, the immediate future more likely holds the promise of trailblazing fun than gold medals. It could take several years for amputee hockey to become a regular part of the Paralympics.
Ewasiuk will begin college next year and continue playing in recreational leagues, but has no plans to compete at the varsity college level. She wants to study sports medicine and become an athletic trainer.
Lukasik, an accountant with Canadian certification will return to school for an American accounting degree and plans to play hockey as long as she can. Her 17-year-old son, David, plays on a league team that just won the state championship in Michigan.
Both women say they have learned lasting lessons from hockey.
"My philosophy has always been, never look at the outside of an individual, just what's within," Lukasik said.
Ewasiuk's advice to other disabled athletes reflects the philosophy instilled by her parents. "I'd say, just go for what you want," she said. "Don't let others ruin your dreams."
Darryl McGrath is a journalist in Albany, N.Y., who has previously written about co-ed hockey teams and changing perceptions of women athletes.
American Amputee Hockey Association:
Disabled Sports USA:
Salt Lake City 2002 Paralympics:
By Frederick Clarkson