Life After Salt Lake City - Kip St. Germaine '89 talks about his own miracle on ice
Still riding high from Team USA'a three-game sweep against Germany, Norway and Sweden at the Four Nations Cup Tournament last November in Eppelheim, Germany, 2002 Paralympic Gold Medalist Kip St. Germaine '89 found time to squeeze in a speaking engagement at Norwich University before heading out to the Ice Sled Hockey World Championships in Ornskoldsvik, Sweden in April.
Addressing students in Geoff Davison's PE 373 "Activities and Programs for the Disabled and Aging" class, St. Germaine described what it was like growing up in a family of three hockey-playing boys.
"Our family life centered around hockey," said the Sagamore, Mass. native. "We spent our school vacations traveling to Connecticut, Canada or Upstate New York for tournaments."
After graduating from Tabor Academy in Marion, Mass., St. Germaine was recruited to play hockey for Norwich. Ironically, he never went out for the team. It was a decision he would regret for years.
"It always haunted me," St. Germaine said. "As a freshman I had the talent to play, but I never followed through."
Shortly after graduating with a B.S. in economics, St. Germaine's life took an unexpected turn. While on a construction crew that was framing in a house, he became pinned under a five-ton section of wall. The accident left him paralyzed from the waist down.
Discharged from the hospital nine weeks later, St. Germaine hard a hard time accepting that he was permanently disabled. "I was fiercely independent," he said. "I acted as though nothing had changed - I wouldn't even let the visiting nurses cook for me."
In an effort to help him out of his denial, well-meaning friends tried to get him interested in wheelchair sports, but St. Germaine wouldn't hear of it. "I completely ignored the disabled community," he said.
Time passed, and St. Germaine settled into his routine as an insurance agent for New York Life, leading a relatively normal life. "I could still do basically everything," he said, "it just took me a lot longer." Still, thoughts of what might have been continued to haunt him. "My biggest regret was not that I would never be able to walk again, but that I would never be able to play hockey again."
In early 1994 a newspaper article about a local ice sled hockey team landed on top of St. Germaine's desk. It would prove to be the key to what had been missing from his life. "I fell in love with hockey all over again," St. Germaine said.
In ice sled hockey, (called ice sledge hockey everywhere but in the United States), competitors are strapped onto tubular metal sleds fitted with hockey skate blades. They use two shortened sticks, one for each hand, for maneuvering the puck. Raised several inches up off the ice, players propel themselves with their arms by means of jagged picks fixed to the butt ends of their sticks. Teams wear full equipment, and only the referees are not on sleds.
Less than a year later, at his coach's urging, St. Germaine tried out for the U.S. National Team, not thinking he had any chance of making it. "I understood the game better than most, because I had played it, but I didn't have the technique the other guys had." The selectors must have seen St. Germaine' potential, because on Jan. 2, 1995, he received a letter notifying him that he had been selected for Team USA. "It said 'get your passport, you're going to Sweden for the World Games.'"
St. Germaine captained the U.S. team to a 6th place finish at the 1998 Winter Paralympic Games in Nagano, Japan, scoring America's first ever goal in Paralympic competition in a 1-1 tie against Canada. Four years later, in Salt Lake City, he netted the game-winning goal in a shootout against Norway to clinch the gold medal for the United States. The undisputed underdog going into Salt Lake City, the U.S. team's victory rocked the ice sled hockey world.
"We were seeded sixth going into the tournament," said St. Germaine. "We went from worst to first!"
Winning the gold instantly transformed St. Germaine's life. Before long he was forced to choose between the rigorous demands of training, travel, public appearances and competition, and holding down a full-time job. "When I was at work I felt like I was short-changing the team, and when I was with the team I felt I wasn't pulling my weight at work." Since quitting his job with Smith Barney, he supports himself through speaking engagements, spreading the word about physically challenged athletes. His hope is for the Paralympics to eventually become as well known as the Special Olympics.
"I think it can happen," he said. "All it takes is education."
St. Germaine told the students in Davison's class that he would not trade in his gold medal for the chance to walk again. "Sled hockey has opened doors for me that I never could have imagined. I've participated in two Olympics. I've traveled and met people from all over the world - I've been to the White House and met the president."
He also spoke with candor about the fleeting nature of fame. "Nobody ever remembers who won the silver," he said. "If we don't win again in '06, we'll be yesterday's news."
At the conclusion of his talk, St. Germaine invited the class down to Kreitzberg Arena to try out the sleds. Later that afternoon, he spoke to a group of third, fourth and fifth-graders at Northfield Elementary School. Then it was back to Kreitzberg to meet with the Cadets ice hockey team as they geared up for the E.C.A.C. tournament. "I love having the opportunity to share my experiences with people, kids especially," St. Germaine said.
St. Germaine readily admitted that had he played hockey for Norwich, the rest might never have happened. "All along, that was the force that drove me, the fact that I never had the chance to prove myself."
Now that the thirty-eight-year-old has finally completed that chapter of his life, is retirement on the horizon? "I'd like one more shot at the gold at the 2006 Games in Torino, Italy," said St. Germaine, "to show the rest of the world that it wasn't a fluke."
To learn more about ice sled hockey in your area, go to http://www.usahockey.com/ussha/
firstname.lastname@example.org, March 2004