Undaunted By Injuries or the Pandemic, Canadian Hockey Prodigy Sara Swiderski Pursues Her Olympic Dreams

How does one of the most promising hockey talents deal with injuries, a pandemic and an uncertain future?
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On September 17, 2020, Sara Swiderski learned that her hopes of debuting for Canada at the 2021 International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) Under-18 Women’s World Championship in Sweden were dashed. The tournament, slated for January, was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I was just shocked,” recalled Swiderski, 16, who got the news from fellow Hockey Canada prospect Brooke Disher while walking into class at George Elliot Secondary School in Kelowna, British Columbia. “I didn’t even know what to say. I was disappointed and upset that I wasn’t going to get a chance to prove myself.”

It was hardly the first time the determined, swift-skating hockey prodigy has faced big-time adversity related to her sport.

On March 20, 2019, Swiderski, at age 14, had surgery on her right knee at the BC Children’s Hospital, a 45-minute drive from the Vancouver suburb of Langley where her family lives. Then a high-scoring defender for the Fraser Valley Rush of the BC Female Midget AAA Hockey League (BCFMAAA), Swiderski had first dislocated her kneecap at a July 2018 tournament in Toronto.

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She opted for months of conservative rehabilitation, but after she suffered another dislocation in February 2019, an operation was greenlighted. An MPFL (medial patellofemoral ligament) reconstruction, using a cadaver tendon to reconstruct the torn ligament, was performed by Dr. Christopher Reilly, whose daughter Kate plays NCAA hockey at Quinnipiac University.

Remarkably, today Swiderski is playing better, working harder, and feeling more motivated than ever before. The 2004-born eleventh-grader, who has verbally committed to Clarkson University’s women’s hockey program for 2022-23, is both a student and a teacher of the game. She has found ways to make an impact off the ice as well. Passion, commitment, and skill are her guiding principles.

A Big Talent From a Young Age

“She plays big,” said Delaney Collins, who won three Women’s World Championship gold medals on defense for Canada before coaching Swiderski with the Rush. “She skates big. She’s got a big stick, a big presence, a hard, hard shot. She snaps the puck like a pro. Whether it’s just a casual drill or a high-pressure game, she’ll lead. A lot of it revolves around the way she moves and the way she can pass.”

Collins also served as the head coach of the Canadian under-18 women’s team in 2018 and is currently the Nashville Predators female hockey ambassador. Swiderski, who started skating at age two and playing boys’ hockey at age five, first hit Collins’ radar as a stand-out 10-year-old at a camp in nearby Bellingham, Washington.

At age 12, Swiderski had to choose which sport to focus on. Like her family – including her Polish-born father Derek, her mother Lindsay, and her older brother Joshua – she had excelled at competitive soccer, as well as track and field.

Lindsay and Sara Swiderski

Lindsay and Sara Swiderski

Primarily, though, she cherished the early childhood memory of staying home from school in 2010 to watch the Canadian women win hockey gold at the Vancouver Olympics. So, when Collins offered Swiderski a spot on the Rush, she embraced the opportunity. To compete at age 12 against girls as old as 17 was a huge challenge.

“[Collins] took a really big chance on me, letting me play on her team as a young player,” Swiderski said. “And she let me be free. She gave me a green light to develop into a hockey player. She would let me make mistakes and just learn from it.”

The 12-year-old made no mistake with a game-changing goal at the 2016-17 2 Nations Cup in a Toronto rink packed with scouts from U.S. colleges and Hockey Canada.

“She faked a slap shot, stepped in, deked around somebody, took a shot, and it went bar in,” Collins recalled. “It was epic. It showed me Sara Swiderski had the potential to be great in big moments.”

Leading On and Off the Ice

Teaching hockey has become another tool in Swiderski’s arsenal. She volunteers at Langley-area rinks to teach kids specific skills, like shooting off one foot or improving their edge work. This also helps her assimilate what she’s learned from Impact Hockey’s Tim Preston, her long-time skills coach.

Preston assigned the gifted teen to be an instructor at his summer hockey camp along with NHL defenseman Brenden Dillon. He’s witnessed how she pushes herself to keep up while skating with other NHLers like Kyle Cumiskey and Ty Smith.

“The biggest thing with Sara is she’s got such an internal competition with herself,” Preston said. “Although she does things very well, she’s also very hard on herself, wanting to get better.”

Additionally, Swiderski’s off-ice leadership prompted Collins to make her a Rush assistant captain at age 13. Swiderski spearheaded team fundraisers for charities like Habitat for Humanity, Devotion 2 Motion, and KidSport. With a bottle drive, she raised $200 to cover a young player’s entry fee for the BC High Performance Skills Camp in Langley.

Coming Back Even Stronger

Self-care, naturally, was foremost after Swiderski’s knee surgery. Physiotherapist Danielle Langford oversaw Swiderski’s grueling 2019 rehab at the state-of-the-art Fortius Sport & Health complex. They focused on building strong foundations with single-leg squats, strides, and blood flow restriction training tailored for a teen experiencing growth spurts. Langford believes Swiderski’s internal drive was vital to ensure her full recovery.

“It shows her love for hockey,” Langford said. “I’ve dealt with lots of youth athletes with different injuries. Your love for your sport gets questioned. It either gets ignited even more or you realize this is too much work, and maybe basketball, soccer, or hockey isn’t worth it. But Sara put in a huge amount of work and faced numerous adverse situations. When it comes to a highly competitive situation down the road, she’ll have that experience to fall back on.”

“I can’t tell you how much I hated Danielle during my recovery!” Swiderski said. “It was hard for me mentally. I remember going into physio and I just couldn’t even lift my leg. I couldn’t get up by myself. After always being so active, it made me feel like I wasn’t going to get there. Some days I cried because it hurt and I couldn’t do it.”

However, she persevered. She skated for the first time post-surgery in May 2019 and was back playing that October with the Greater Vancouver Comets, the BCFMAAA club where she moved after Collins left for Nashville. Putting her 65 flex Bauer hockey stick to good use, she led the Comets’ defense with seven goals and 16 assists in 31 games.

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In 2020, the pandemic shutdowns didn’t blunt Swiderski’s momentum. She worked out five or six days a week, including thrice-weekly personal training sessions at Impact Hockey. At home, she used free weights and a TRX suspension trainer and transformed the garage into a hockey training center with shooting tiles and a net with targets. She swam in the family swimming pool, did 10-kilometer runs, and trained for the infamous “beep test,” which is designed to test aerobic capacity.

For the 2020-21 season, Swiderski has relocated to Kelowna, a city of 140,000 that’s four hours by car from Vancouver, to hone her talents at the elite Rink Hockey Academy (RHA) under coach Micah Zandee-Hart, a current Canadian national team blueliner. In Kelowna, Swiderski’s parents take turns living with her in a rented house.

Plenty of Heroes to Emulate

Swiderski has no shortage of hockey role models. Ex-teammate Jenna Buglioni, an Ohio State forward who captained the Comets last season, scored four points for the Canadian silver-medal team at the 2020 IIHF Under-18 Women’s World Championship in Slovakia.

“I told her, ‘Don’t get discouraged, because you’re still so young,’” Buglioni said. “‘You’re on [Hockey Canada’s] radar. Just make sure that you’re doing the little things.’ I think she realizes it’s not going to be easy, but she has so much passion and drive for it.”

When Swiderski researched the U.S. colleges vying for her talents, taking a Clarkson campus tour with Loren Gabel was a turning point. Gabel, 23, earned the 2019 Patty Kazmaier Award as the top player in NCAA women’s hockey and led Canada with six goals at the IIHF Women’s World Championship in Finland that year.

“Especially coming into Clarkson, it’s very important to have that maturity level as high as you can,” said Gabel, who won two Frozen Four titles with the small university in Potsdam, New York. “You’re going to be on your own, without your parents, in a new setting, and you have to learn how to be an individual. I think it’ll be good for her with how mature she is.”

Swiderski’s NHL role models include fearless, colorful defensemen like Brent Burns of the San Jose Sharks and P.K. Subban of the New Jersey Devils. On the women’s side, she idolizes Canada’s Laura Fortino, a top-pairing national team defender over the previous decade. Fortino set up Marie-Philip Poulin’s overtime winner (video unavailable in U.S.) in the 3-2 comeback victory over the Americans in the 2014 Olympic gold medal game.

Swiderski’s skating is also reminiscent of the big, effortless strides of 6-foot-tall American blueliner Lee Stecklein, who was 19 when she made her Olympic debut in Sochi. Interestingly, at 5-foot-9, Swiderski is already taller than anyone named to Canada’s senior team for the canceled 2020 IIHF Women’s World Championship.

Focused on a Bright Future

Fortunately for Swiderski, she’ll get another shot at making her Under-18 Women’s World Championship debut, as she’ll only be 17 in 2022. Of course, with Canada’s deep talent pool, there are no guarantees. According to IIHF statistics, Canada leads the world with 101,879 registered female players, with the U.S. in second place at 84,102.

Yet Swiderski got a head start when she was one of 59 players – and just one of five born in 2004 – invited to join Hockey Canada’s virtual National Women’s Under-18 Team Camp, which kicked off last summer. Online sessions with head coach Howie Draper and his staff, weekly through January, cover training, nutrition, team-building, and other topics. Swiderski, who has absorbed the precepts of sports performance specialist Allistair McCaw (Champion Minded), particularly appreciates Hockey Canada mental skills coach Paula McQuaid.

“We did a vision board early on in the virtual program,” Swiderski said. “That was such a big thing for me, because seeing everything that I’m working toward just made me realize how much I want to work hard. I don’t want to quit even if I can’t get on the ice or gyms aren’t open.”

Her packed RHA schedule in Kelowna leaves limited time for her favorite diversions, like watching Grey’s Anatomy or making chicken parmesan sliders. Typically, Swiderski gets up at 6:30 a.m., hits the gym at 7:30 a.m., and takes a shuttle to school by 8:45 in the morning. In the afternoon, she hits the ice from 1 to 3 p.m. with her teammates, followed by yoga, skills development, or hockey video clips. After dinner and homework, she goes to bed between 8 and 9 at night.

Questing For Her Olympic Dreams

All this hard work and sacrifice has a purpose. The 16-year-old’s ultimate dream is to represent Canada at the Winter Olympics. Beijing, just over a year away, is obviously a long shot.

However, Swiderski will be 21 when the 2026 Winter Games take place in Milan and Cortina-d’Ampezzo, Italy. And in 2030, she’ll be in her prime at age 25. Vancouver is weighing a bid to host the Olympics again in 2030, which adds even more motivation for Swiderski.

“I’m excited to see where she gets to, because I know she's got the inner fire for it,” Langford said.

“The adversity I’ve gone through has just made me a better player, a better person, and more grateful to be on the ice,” Swiderski said. “I never take my foot off the gas pedal now.”

Photo Credit: Rink Hockey Academy images of Sara Swiderski by Kimberly Driscoll Photography