JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Paralympic athletes are in their last weeks of training before heading to the winter games in South Korea.
One of the ice sports is attracting attention in Florida: sled hockey. An all-inclusive sport with sleds designed to carry the players and sticks to help them move and shoot.
“The first time I went on to the ice it was amazing. It feels like flying,” Karina Villegas said.
Karina Villegas was hit by a car and nearly died as a teenager. Her leg was amputated, but that did not keep her from pursuing sports.
Now, Villegas is one of 15 women on the USA Women’s Sled Hockey squad.
At a December scrimmage in Jacksonville, Tripp Skinner from a team from the Space Coast shares the ice with Villegas.
“It’s like no other sport I’ve experienced, it is a whole new meaning to what freedom can be,” Tripp Skinner said.
Born with spina bifida, Skinner found the adaptive sport in 2014. The coach during the scrimmage, Tom Reinharts grew up around hockey, but only found sled hockey when looking for a sport his son Nicholas could play. For Reinharts, it became much more, taking-on duties as a coach and not turning back.
“It’s just great watching everything from kids with spina bifida, single amputees, wounded warriors, disabled vets playing and just enjoy the sport of hockey,” Tom Reinharts said.
Gliding, pivoting, and firing-off a slapshot looks effortless with the team running through drills.
“It’s a lot of hard work, you have to work a lot off the ice to keep up the competition,” Villegas said.
She explained there are not enough competitors worldwide to form national teams, which means there is no Paralympic game for the women’s team. However, she hopes more countries will organize women’s sled hockey in time for the 2022 games.
Skinner added that the bonds formed on the ice, last long after the game.
“In between it’s game time but as soon as that whistle blows it’s bumping fists, giving hugs,” Skinner.
The U.S. Men’s Sled Hockey Team will compete in March for the Paralympic Winter Games also held in South Korea.