Sami Jo Small transformed a low point of her life as a three-time Olympian into the cornerstone of a career away from the hockey rink.
A goalie on the Canadian women's hockey team in the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, Small learned the night before the gold medal finals that she would not be starting against the United States. She had played in about half the games leading up to the Olympics, and though she only started in one tournament game—a 7-0 victory over Russia—she still held out hope.
"It was one of the hardest things I had to deal with—getting so close to the Olympic dream and not playing the role [I] wanted," she says. "I left the coach's office and wandered around the athletes' village, not knowing who to talk to. I had tears in my eyes."
Ultimately, Small decided that if she couldn't be on the ice, she would accept a different role. "Who knew I was training for four years to be the best possible cheerleader in the world?" she now tells audiences during her motivational speeches, which focus on the importance of group accomplishment.
Canada won that game 3-2 and Small, who received a gold medal along with her teammates, believes that both she and those listening to her benefit from her experience in dealing with personal disappointment. "For me it's been very cathartic," she says. "Initially it was hard to talk about those moments, but the more times I talked about them, the more I saw how people in their own lives relate to it, maybe in their own families or at work."
Small turned to the ice while at Stanford after shoulder injuries prevented the Winnipeg native from competing in the track and field events that brought her to the Farm. She played for the men's team and was named the men's Pac-10 MVP while at Stanford.
Now living outside Toronto and engaged to Canadian Paralympic athlete Billy Bridges, Small has not abandoned hockey. She operates girls' hockey camps in four provinces and plays for the Mississauga Chiefs, one of six teams now in the third season of the Canadian Women's Hockey League. Players aren't paid, but Small—as vice chair of the league's board and head of its sponsorship committee—is working to change that. "With the Olympics in Canada this year, there's a lot of hype around women's hockey," she says, explaining the timing of the effort to elevate the league to professional status. "If women are ever going to get to be paid to play hockey, this is the year. We'll spend this season trying to sell our business plan, and hopefully for 2010-11, we'll have something similar to the WNBA."
DAVID POLLAK covers hockey for the San Jose Mercury News.