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Nicole Hensley played in three Olympic games for Team USA. In her time on the ice she faced 13 shots on goal. She saved all 13.
Gold-medal winning Olympic goalie Nicole Hensley had a simple piece of advice for all the young girl hockey players looking to make a name for themselves on the ice — “Don't let anyone tell you you can't play. You belong on the ice as much as anyone.”
This advice was met by applause, not just from girls, but also from boys and their parents at Littleton's Edge Ice Arena following an afternoon of skating, selfies and stories on April 15.
The event was a homecoming for Hensley, who spent third grade through sophomore year of high school developing her hockey skills on these very rinks as a member of the Foothills Flyers, though at the time she was playing on the boy's team.
“I tried a lot of sports growing up, but there's something about hockey. There's just nothing like it,” she told the crowd. “But it wasn't easy. There was a time when it seemed like no college wanted me, and I was having anxiety every time the phone rang, because I knew it would be another college telling me they didn't want me.”
The main mission of the event was to connect Hensley with young girls and boys who have started their own hockey journeys. It started with an hour free skate, where Hensley took to the ice with more than 50 players, stopping to take more than a few selfies, and even participate in a race or two.
“My favorite part was getting the chance to skate with Nicole,” said 10-year-old Sarah Habetler, who has been playing hockey for two years. “She makes me want to be like her and get to the Olympics someday.”
But the most illuminating portion of the event came when Hensley sat down with 9News sportscaster Cealey Godwin to share her story and how she made it to the Olympic team.
“I want our players to listen and understand that hockey isn't easy,” said Bryan Smith, director of hockey with the Colorado Select Team. “It takes hard work, focus and training.”
Hensley's hockey career took a serious leap forward when she started playing with the Colorado Select team as a junior, which provided her a window to the world of college hockey. From there, she played at Lindenwood University until she graduated, and then took a job coaching there.
The process of making the US Hockey team included attending camps periodically throughout the year where she was evaluated against the top talent in the country and if the staff likes what they see, the player is invited to be part of the team.
Getting accepted to the Olympic team is an experience Hensley remembers in both great detail, and not at all.
“They said to me, `Congratulations, Nicole,' and I don't remember anything after that because I started crying,” she said with a laugh. “From there, we spent the six months leading up to the Olympics living and practicing together in Tampa, Florida.”
As for receiving the gold medal after defeating Canada, Hensley remembers a lot of screaming and crying and hugging, with the most powerful moment coming when the National Anthem started playing.
“When the music started playing, it felt like there was nobody else but the 23 of us on the ice,” she said. “We all just stood there watching our flag go up.”
Everything since the ceremony has been a blur of traveling and media events, and she's looking forward to getting back to her coaching job at Lindenwood.
“It doesn't matter if you're a girl or a boy. It matters that you work hard,” said Gabe Gauthier, director of the Foothills Fliers. “When you're an athlete, you have to identify what the best path is for you. And Nicole is a great role model for the kids.”
Hensley has already made an impact on all the young players who lined up for her autograph after her speech, like 10-year-old Hayden Blom.
“I really liked getting to hear her story and getting to spend some time with her,” Blom said. “I'm going to work hard, never give up, and make it to the Olympics someday.”
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