She’s been called a “once in a generation” athlete and a single-handed program-changer. She won an Olympic medal while in the midst of a dominant college career and returned even better than before. On Saturday, Kendall Coyne capped it off with the 2016 Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award, the women’s hockey version of the Heisman Trophy.
The Kazmaier ceremony in New Hampshire was a long way from Coyne’s suburban Chicago upbringing, though the lessons Coyne learned in youth sports are never far from her mind. Coyne spoke with USA TODAY High School Sports about the importance of sports for young girls and how they molded the future for the 2014 Olympic silver medalist.
USAT (Q): Why are sports so important for girls today? What do they mean for you?
KENDALL COYNE (A): I think sports are so important for girls because it keeps them active but also means you’re a part of something. I always had friends outside of school because of hockey. The commonality of hockey, people got what I did. Sports make girls able to create relationships outside the typical school life.
The biggest thing for me growing up in Chicagoland, I was always called those names like Tom Boy and why I was always wearing sweatpants to school, but that was because I was a girl playing hockey even though that was weird back in the day. I just didn’t care about those kids in school because I had so many friends outside of school who understood what I was trying to do, and that’s why I was able to accomplish my dream.
USAT: When did you know that you wanted to make sports your life work? What inspired that commitment?
KC: I think I knew I was so passionate about sports when I was continuously asking parents to go to my sporting events. I was always the kid who the parents forced to do homework before my sports. I was always driving to play more sports. I couldn’t wait for recess or PE growing up. The biggest thing was that my parents never made me do it, it was always something that I wanted to do. I had an older brother who played hockey and liked that the best, so that’s why I jumped on skates at three years old.
USAT: What makes a great leader in sports? Are they born or made?
KC: I think it’s a blend of being born and made. I have a role at Northeastern where I am a captain, but in USA Hockey I’m not. One thing that has helped me is being able to look at leaders like Julie Chu was for me when I was a 15-year-old. It’s how someone acts when no one is watching and when times are tough that prove the difference between average and great leaders.
USAT: Are there specific challenges in girls sports, whether from team dynamics or other issues?
KC: Especially in games like hockey, it’s perceived as a man’s sport, and girl’s hockey is considered slower and not as fun to watch. But now that’s changing, people say they’re excited about our games and think they’re as fun as the men’s games.
The sense is that these sports are made for boys, but once you get it out of your head, you can overcome a lot of things and do whatever you want to do. For girls that are thinking of this as a boys sport, looking at the opportunities beyond elementary school ages shows all the opportunities that are there for girls, which are huge.
USAT: What was your career in youth sports like?
KC: My entire youth career I played on boys teams. It was a challenge but once my teammates respected me as a player and person they respected me. My teammates always had my back and are still my friend today. Their support helped me believe I could achieve my dreams playing girls hockey as well.
USAT: What advice do you have for girls who want to be involved in a particular sport but may not have access to it?
KC: Even for someone who has ice hockey, a rink isn’t the most accessible item there is. Growing up it was more playing with my siblings, getting out and being active. Maybe there’s something in gym class there might be something you really like and there’s options. It’s a matter of finding something you’re passionate about and sticking to it.
For me, without sports I would be lost in this world. Because of sports I’ve literally traveled the entire world. I would have never gone to the places I’ve been if it wasn’t for hockey. The biggest thing is the relationships I’ve gained from sports. They’ve been tremendous and all my closest relationships have come from sports. And sports have to be fun. They’re hard work, but they build character and that’s why you should do it. That’s when you’ll get the most out of your abilities.