Poised to compete in her fourth Winter Olympics next month in Vancouver, hockey veteran Angela Ruggiero laughs now at her inauspicious start on skates as a wobbly 7-year-old girl clinging to the wall of an ice rink.
"I'm not going to lie. I cried," says Ruggiero, describing her first outing on the ice while growing up in Panorama City, Calif.
But that same moment also marked the beginning of her twin passionsfor hockey and for breaking barriers in an intensely physical sport dominated by men and boys.
Now 30, Ruggiero is a trailblazer on the ice and recognized by the Hockey Hall of Fame as one of the sport's premier female athletes. The powerful defender has played on every U.S. Olympic hockey team since women first competed in the sport during the 1998 Games in Japan. She and her teammates earned a gold medal in Nagano, silver in Salt Lake City in 2002, and bronze in Torino, Italy, in 2006.
Skating alongside her brother, Bill, with the Tulsa Oilers, Ruggiero became the first non-goalie woman to play in a professional men's hockey game in North America. She has traced her journey in her memoir, Breaking the Ice: My Journey to Olympic Hockey, The Ivy League & Beyond, to "inspire all the little girls out there who don't really have that many female role models."
For Ruggiero, hockey provided the perfect platform to advance her education, travel the world and develop as a personopportunities that she believes sports can offer all children, especially young girls. "All the things I've been able to do during my lifetime are because I have gained confidence through sports," she says.
No stranger to adversity, her approach to barriers has been to skate into them headlong.
"I loved hockey, but I did always have a chip on my shoulder," Ruggiero says of her early days. "I was getting cut from boys teams because I was a girl, and that was the only reason. I was by far good enough to be on those teams. I always felt when I got on the ice, I had to prove myself."
Ruggiero idolized Los Angeles Kings star Wayne Gretzky and set her sights to play one day on the men's pro team. But when she learned that women's hockey would become an Olympic sport, her goal transformed into gold medal dreams.
Ruggiero parlayed her scrappiness on the ice and her studiousness in the classroom into a scholarship to Choate Rosemary Hall, a private prep school in Wallingford, Conn. (pop. 43,026). At Choate, she got her first experiences on an all-girls hockey team. "Everybody was like, 'Who's this California kid?'" recalls Ruggiero, who was 14 at the time. "And I realized I was an OK hockey player."
Far better than "OK," she was chosen a year later to play with the women's national hockey team and went on to become an NCAA First Team Academic All-American at Harvard University. At 18, she became the youngest member on the U.S. Olympic team that brought home the gold.
Along with her success on the ice, Ruggiero continues to pursue excellence beyond the hockey rink. Between Olympics, she graduated cum laude from Harvard in 2004, wrote her book published in 2005, and appeared on NBC's The Apprentice in 2007. Though TV host Donald Trump "fired" her on the show, he later offered her a job in real lifewhich she turned down to pursue Olympic medal No. 4.
With a heart for advocacy and involvement, Ruggiero has led hockey camps for girls, promoted education in China, and visited U.S. troops in Afghanistan as part of an Olympic Heroes Tour. Now she's eyeing a career in sports marketing or broadcasting as she pursues a master's degree at the University of Minnesota.
Head Olympic coach Mark Johnson has high expectations of Ruggiero, one of only a handful of veteran players on the women's hockey team. "Some people might think we're a little bit young, but I think the young players come with their youthful energy (and) can lean on the veterans' experience," he says.
As for life after Vancouver, Ruggiero stops short of saying she'll retire from the rink, but it's clear she's savoring each Olympic moment.
"I'm lucky," she says. "I feel like I have a better understanding of what the Olympics stand for, what it's all about because I'm older. I can appreciate it. I'm going to take a lot of pictures. I want to capture it all. It's a special time."