Each sport has at least one athlete who serves as, “the face” of the game. For women’s hockey, that star is Hilary Knight.
Knight has been a member of the U.S. senior national team since she was a 17-year-old teenager in suburban Chicago. In the years since, she’s captured two silver medals at the Olympics and five golds and two silvers at IIHF World Championships. She’s also a former star for the Wisconsin women’s hockey team who captured a national title with the Badgers en route to school records for career goals (143), game-winning goals (30), power-play goals (37), and short-handed goals (8). More recently, Knight finished the 2015 season as the NWHL’s inaugural scoring champion en route to the Boston Pride’s Isobel Cup triumph.
Throughout her rise, Knight has had to adapt to life as the most recognizable woman in a male sport. As part of Girls Sports Month, Knight spoke to USA TODAY High School Sports about the important role sports played in her own development, and the importance of making sacrifices to chase dreams.
USA TODAY (Q): Why are sports so important for girls today? What do they mean for you?
HILARY KNIGHT (A): Sports are so important because of the life lessons and skills you learn for competing and being part of a team in sport. For me, being a part of a team and applying what I’ve learned to real life situations has been the most valuable thing. Sports have a way of uniting people who may not have the same backgrounds and bringing them together for a common cause.
Q: When did you know that you wanted to make sports your life work? What inspired that commitment?
A: I always wanted to be in the Olympics and play in them. The biggest thing was that I had so much fun playing hockey and I wanted to be able to play hockey and have as much fun as I could every day. That pushed me to maximize my career in and around sports.
Q: What makes a great leader in sports? Are they born or made?
A: Leaders are made. Being able to have the diligence to pursue a goal or passion and share and broaden that goal with others are all important. Leading by example is critical. That’s one of the brilliant things about sport. It brings people together for a common goal and a build different relationships around something you love.
Q: Are there specific challenges in girls sports, whether from team dynamics or other issues?
A: I think the common theme is that girls aren’t as competitive or physical as boys are. That’s a misled conception that’s been around for so many years, but as we see different spectacular athletes rise those misconceptions get washed away a bit. I think we will get to a point where the sports are celebrated just for being an amazing sport and not diminished because it’s a women’s sport and not a men’s sport. Just because you’re a female or a woman shouldn’t bar you from playing a sport you love. It shouldn’t deter you from believing you can compete either.
Q: What was your career in youth sports like?
A: Most of the leagues I grew up in were all boys leagues. It’s innately different. My goal was always to be one of the guys, one of the amazing team players on one of those teams. I wanted to be good enough to be there and be the best.
Q: What advice do you have for girls who want to be involved in a particular sport but may not have access to it?
A: I would say to work really hard and find a way to get involved in that sport. Sometimes you have to make sacrifices, but they’ll be worth it.
Q: What’s the best example you’ve seen in your athletic career of leadership? Who are the leaders you’ve been around and traits they’ve showed?
A: I would have to say Mia Hamm or Julie Foudy, because they changed the landscape of women’s soccer. Now there is public controversy over their issues, but those discussions and salaries wouldn’t have happened without what they accomplished. On the hockey side, my mentor was Angela Ruggiero. I learned a tremendous amount underneath her and saw how she changed the game of hockey.
Q: Teenagers are often self-conscious during their high school years. Did you have the confidence to be a leader while still in school? If so, what gave you that self-belief?
A: Honestly, I knew that I had fun doing a particular thing, which was playing hockey. It’s an ongoing growth process, but as long as you stay true to what you’re passionate about you continue to gain confidence from there. It makes you happy and you want to be happy.