As Canada’s joint-most-successful Olympian of all time, ice hockey centre Hayley Wickenheiser is a living legend in her homeland. She discusses the huge pressure to win at her national sport, competing in two different sports (having played softball at Sydney 2000), and her new high-pressure career as a trainee emergency room doctor.
Hayley Wickenheiser’s first attempt to emulate an Olympian – trying to build her own ski jump outside her parents’ home in Saskatchewan, Canada – was not successful. “My first memories of the Olympics were Calgary 1988, when I was just 10, and my hero that year was Matti Nykanen, the Finnish ski jumper,” she said.
“My parents were schoolteachers and didn’t have a lot of extra money; but we lived four hours from Calgary, so we had a trip to spend a week at the Olympic Games. When we got back to Saskatchewan, which is a very flat part of Canada, I went out to the barn and started building a jump. I decided I was going to go to the Olympics. I didn’t know in what sport or how, but I was going to do it.”
The determined young Wickenheiser’s dream was eventually achieved, six times over. Regarded by many as the greatest female ice hockey player of all time, she won one silver and four gold medals, was twice voted the tournament’s MVP, and has the rare distinction of having competed at both the Winter and Summer Olympic Games, having been part of Canada’s softball team at Sydney 2000.
Her Games experience began with the heartache of losing a final, however. “The Olympics hadn’t been a factor for women when I was growing up, but I’d always aimed to play at the highest level. I didn’t put a male or female label on myself; my dream was to play for the Edmonton Oilers in the NHL.
“But then it was announced in 1994 that women’s hockey would be a full medal sport for Nagano 1998, and from that point forward I knew exactly what I wanted. Going to Japan aged 19 was exciting, and I have lots of vivid memories. But it was also devastating. The gold medal game was my first taste of the world stage, and my first taste of losing.
“I remember standing on the blue line with a silver medal around my neck thinking, ‘I never want to feel like this again.’ But looking back, it probably wasn’t the worst thing. Sometimes you have to lose to learn how to win.”
Wickenheiser wouldn’t have to feel like that again. At the Salt Lake City Games in 2002, as a far more experienced player, she pocketed her first gold. She remembers it as “a very emotional Olympics. It was just after 9/11, and one of the girls on the American team’s father was killed in the World Trade Centre, so it was very charged.”
The final pitted Canada against the USA, a team the Canadians had poor form against and who were playing on home ice. Wickenheiser scored in the final, and was eventually voted tournament MVP. “For Canada, we’d played the US before the final, and lost every game, so we were determined to win it. Standing there with the gold medal, I remember pure elation, and some redemption. We’d had a rough road, and I felt like it had paid off. You’re excited with that medal, but mostly you feel exhaustion and relief for getting the job done.”
The Canadian hockey juggernaut would steam through the next three Games. There was gold at Turin 2006, which Wickenheiser remembers as being poorly attended, “but with a beautiful arena, and beating Sweden in the final was great. I guess I’m being picky, criticising anything. When you’ve been to lots of Games, you can start to compare. If I’d only been to that one, I’d feel different.”
Unsurprisingly, her home Games at Vancouver 2010 remain the favourite. “Nothing compares to an Olympics on your own soil, but with that came expectation to win. It is a whole other level with hockey in Canada. But it was a very special thing to do. Vancouver did an amazing job, and the way the Canadian public embraced the athletes and responded to great performances was fantastic. When we won gold, people flooded on to the streets to celebrate. There was an electric atmosphere. It was so cool.”
An incredible, record-breaking fourth gold in a row followed at Sochi 2014. “We knew the rest of the world was gunning for us, trying to knock us off, so we trained at another level to be ready, physically and mentally,” Wickenheiser said. “The final against the USA was our most spectacular win – and maybe the most spectacular win in Olympic hockey history. To be 2-0 down with 10 minutes to go, to come back; I don’t know if we’ve seen anything like that, male or female. It was a wild game.”
Amid the Winter Games medal tsunami, it’s easy to forget that Wickenheiser was also a world-class softball player. She attended Sydney 2000 – discovering a huge difference from the Winter format, and also having to adjust to a completely different mentality.
“The Summer Games are totally different,” Wickenheiser said. “It’s a giant party, double the size. I loved it because it was hot – I was so used to being in cold climates. I could wear shorts every day, which was great. The scale was amazing, and it was probably my favourite Olympic experience, all round. Sydney did an amazing job.
“But I was disappointed by our results. I thought we had the potential to win a medal, but we lost the game that would have taken us to the playoffs. It felt like a team that was just happy to be there, rather than one that thought it could win. The mentality difference from hockey was huge, and I found it hard to understand. I’d much rather play in a team where they expect you to win. It’s much more fun. If you expect little, that’s what you get.”
Reflecting on her overall Olympic career, Wickenheiser says she is most proud about the fact that: “I was able to deliver under pressure, in big moments.” And she certainly isn’t resting on her laurels these days, either. As well as still working within hockey, as assistant director of player development for the Toronto Maple Leafs, Wickenheiser, still only 40, is training to become an emergency room doctor.
The career choice is in-keeping with her love of performing under pressure, but it begs one question: won’t injured Canadians, during their hour of need, be alarmed to find a national hero treating their medical condition? Wickenheiser thinks not. “I like ER because people are too banged-up to care about who I am,” she said. Either way, her heroics continue.