Q&A With Colombian Women’s National Team Forward Sandra Velasquez

Q&A With Colombian Women’s National Team Forward Sandra Velasquez

Steven Ellis16 Jun 2016Steven Ellis»
 

Ever wondered what it's like play at the Pan-American Ice Hockey Games? Colombian women's team forward Sandra Velasquez talked to Steven Ellis about her experiences.

 
 
 
 

Another year of the Pan-American Ice Hockey Games have come and gone, and for the third year, the game continues to develop in countries where the sport really hasn't seen much progress in a very long time. On the men's side, Colombia took their second straight gold medal after beating Mexico 3-2 in an exciting shootout victory. On the women's side, Mexico made up for it with a gold medal thanks to an easy 8-0 victory over Argentina in the final match.

Colombia came up short in the bronze medal game for the women's side, but the team continues to see incredible improvement. With the team participating in very few events a year, there's not much room to succeed, especially against teams like Mexico, who already participate at the women's world championships. Sandra Velasquez was on the Colombian women's team this year, and she talked to Euro Hockey about her first ever experience, an unlikely one at that, playing for the Colombian women's national team.


SE) Give some background about yourself (your hockey story,where you play hockey during the year, what you do for a job, whatever you want people to know).


SV) I was born and raised in Colombia until 8 years old when my family moved to New York City. Ice hockey didn't enter my life until 1992 when I became a New York Rangers fan, and the love affair with this sport began. I started playing roller hockey in the streets and playgrounds of Rego Park/Forest Hills, Queens, at the age of 14, and didn't start playing ice hockey until around 19 years old. I never played ice hockey in high school or college, but have been playing in a multitude of rec leagues, mostly playing with men's teams and participating in adult clinics and tournaments throughout the year. Currently, I am proudly skating with the NYCGHA Wizards hockey team at Chelsea Piers, and also part of another men's team at City Ice Pavilion in Queens. I skate anywhere from 2-4 times a week, so you can say that ice hockey is a big part of my life. Being on the ice allows me to recharge and refocus, especially since I spend so much time in front of a screen at work (I love my job as a graphic designer, though!). The ice is my gym... I hate gyms, they're just not for me!



SE) How did you find out about the Pan-American Ice Hockey Games in the first place?


SV) I read a story three years ago about how the Colombian Men's team played in the PanAm games for the first time ever and have been following the program since. When I found out that Colombia sent a women's team for the first time last year in 2015, I was encouraged by another Colombian hockey player friend of mine and contacted the team's General Manager, Carolina Fierro, via email. That was in February. Fast-forward to June, and I'm on the ice with my fellow teammates representing Colombia in Mexico City after being invited to play. It all happened so fast, I can't believe it's already over!


SE) How did the process go to get named to the team?


SV) It was a surprisingly smooth process, the main reason being that there just aren't enough Colombian female ice hockey-only players in the world to field a team. Of all the girls on the team, I was the one with the most ice hockey experience, so they asked me to play. You have to understand, there is no ice available in Colombia for any of the teams to practice on. All the other girls on the team come from Pro Roller Hockey clubs in Colombia, and for most of the team, Mexico City is the only time they ever get to skate on ice. But don't let that fact fool you, these girls are determined and ready to learn how to skate on ice from the moment they step out there. They're fantastic athletes and picked up the feel of the ice right away. It was awe-inspiring to watch them learn how to stop on ice skates in a matter of hours and days (I think it took me weeks to learn that when I was younger). Amazing.


SE) To those who don't know about hockey in Colombia, what is the program like?


SV) Roller Hockey is huge in Colombia, and naturally the growth into Ice Hockey seems like a natural progression for the sport. The Ice Hockey program as it stands now, is organized and managed by Carolina Fierrot and her family as a labor of love. And a lot, I mean, a LOT of hard work. She manages both the men's and women's teams, organizing practices throughout the year and coordinating the entire PanAm experience for the skaters, their families, and our coach. Unlike the other countries that participated in the Games, the Colombian Ice Hockey program is not at all funded privately or by the government and is fully paid out of pocket by the skaters and organizers. For example, before the tournament this year, the girls down in Colombia took part in a handful of fundraisers just to get additional funds for their trip, all in addition to their daily lives as students, some of them even working additional jobs to save up for the trip. The amount of hard work that every single person involved with the program put in just to get to Mexico is immense. This is why this tournament is so meaningful to all of us, because behind every stride that the girls took out there on the ice, there were countless hours of hard work and preparation that went into just being there. It's hard not to get emotional about it, when you consider the bigger picture of how the team got there.



SE) You obviously told friends and family that you were going to play in the tournament. What was their reaction like?


SV) They were thrilled!!!  My immediate friends and family already know how hockey-crazy I am, so this trip wasn't much of a surprise to them, but what was surprising to me was just how much support I received from every single person I know, both in my personal life, and on social media. I set up a GoFund me page in the hopes of just helping me raise enough for the airline tickets, and in a matter of days I met my goal. People I have never met, my amazing Twitter followers, shared my story and supported me in ways that I never expected. I was even mentioned in a small segment on Montreal Sports Radio, I couldn't believe it! I'm not going to lie, I was brought to tears many times during this process, just knowing that there are people out there that supported me and my little-known team from South America, from all corners of the world. I am so grateful, to every single person, for everything. It's an experience that I will never, ever forget.



SE) What was it like playing hockey over in Mexico, a place where many people don't know the sport exists?


SV) It was surreal! Absolutely surreal. The Mexican teams have had a well-funded program going on there for a while now, so the sport has picked up a lot of momentum there over the last few years, but most of the local people I spoke with had no idea that a tournament was going on. Whenever I mentioned it to them though, they got super-excited about it, and since the Copa America had begun the same week as the PanAm games, there was already a sports-related competitiveness in the air, so once people there found out that Colombia, Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil were participating, they wanted to find out more. It was very cool speaking to people about ice hockey in Spanish, and this trip allowed me to learn new terms in Spanish that I never thought I'd have to learn. I definitely expanded my vocabulary with the Spanish words for goalie, shooting, horseshoe drill, cross-bar, etc. (in addition to some new curse words, of course!).



SE) A few years ago, Canadian forward Logan Delaney said the tournament was more about the sport than winning. Would you say the same?


SV) Without a doubt. I mean, winning is definitely a perk, especially for competitive people like myself, but this trip was not about putting W's or goals up. It was about becoming part of a team, a puzzle piece of a thing that is larger than the individual. I pretty much came in as an outsider to the team, having never met any of the girls nor skated with them before, but in a matter of minutes after meeting them, I felt so welcomed and part of the team right away. I cannot stress enough how much heart these girls (myself included) have. We supported each other, cheered for each other, cheered for the men's team (and the men cheered us on, too). The sense of team and sense of pride for country that I felt coming from these girls and guys was infectious and I gained and learned so much from the rest of the team just by being among them. It's a feeling that is difficult to quantify or explain, but perhaps best explained by the photo of me crying my eyes out after hearing the Colombian Anthem played for the first time in the tournament.



SE) Any specific interesting stories from the tournament?


SV) The ice!! The rink is so much bigger and the boards are so much higher than what I am used to in the States, it completely threw my sense of scale off. I'm a shortie as it is, and trying to get over the boards at the rink was a complete sh*tshow for me! After the first game, I gave up and just started using the door like the rest of the team. Rink/boards, 1, Sandra, 0.


SE) You didn't win a medal, but would you say Colombia still had a good showing?


SV) Yes! Take into consideration that our first game versus Argentina was the first time all of us skated together, take into account that our coach Sam Uisprapassorn met most of us for the first time on this trip, and keep in mind that most of the girls used borrowed ice skates or never skated on ice before... and then realize that we won 2 of our four round-robin games, and I would say, our showing was amazing. Yes, of course, as a team, there is much room for growth and there is a need to get a true system down, but keeping in mind the journey of how the team got there in the first place, for me, personally, this showing was a huge success.



SE) Do you plan on going back next year?


If I am invited, absolutely!



SE) Women's hockey has been on the rise in recent years. Would you say there has been growth for the countries that took part in the tournament?


SV) Yes, no doubt. Comparing stats and pictures from last year, it is apparent that Mexico and Argentina expanded their women's teams and put a lot more resources into their teams for this year. While the Colombian women's team grew with the addition of a lot of new skaters, the Mexican and Argentinian teams had both an A and B team representing their countries. I'm excited to see if other countries will start adding teams to the tournament. I for one would love to see Brazil send a women's team in addition to their men's team. Reportedly, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Jamaica, Panama, and Venezuela were invited to participate but didn't send teams, so I am hoping that in future tournaments there is a showing from these countries as well, how fun would that be?



SE) To see further growth, for both the Pan-Am teams and the sport in general, what needs to be done to improve women's hockey?


SV) I think it starts in the local rinks. Speaking from personal experience, there is very little opportunity for a rec league player like myself to play on women's only teams, and I live in New York City, which has a good number of ice rinks. Unless you come from Canada or states like Minnesota or the Midwest in the US, the support of girls' and women's ice hockey is lacking in many local markets. Granted, I have seen the sport grow leaps and bounds for women since I first got introduced to it in the 90's, but there is a lot more to be done, especially in rinks located in diverse communities. And as far as international exposure, I think the women's sport has come a very long way with the Olympics and the Worlds, with the CWHL and the NWHL, but even so, the women's games mostly get second billing to the men's, if they are even shown at all on network TV. There is a lot more parity that needs to happen still. The more little girls aspire to play, the more they should be encouraged to play and supported throughout their personal journeys as athletes. And the women's game should be given as much exposure as the men's because even though we are different in gender, the passion and hard work, and love of the sport, is the same, if not greater, because of the hurdles we have to overcome just to get ice time.



SE) Anything else you want to share or get across?


SV) Just my endless gratitude, to every single person involved in organizing the tournament, to our GM and coach, and my teammates. To my husband Garet for putting up with my hockey addiction, for flying down to root for our team, and for being such a champion for our sport. And to my family, friends, and online followers who supported me every step of the way for me to be able to tell this awesome story today. If you would have told me a year ago that I would have participated in an IIHF tournament in Mexico City, I would have laughed at you, but today, it's a story that I am happy and proud to share.


You can follow Sandra on Twitter, @Hockey_Wench. You can follow Steven at @StevenEllisNHL.
Photo: Jorge Femat Solis

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