Athletes learn they’ve failed to make an Olympic team in many ways, but for U.S. women’s hockey players, it has been especially heartbreaking in recent cycles.
Hilary Knight, arguably the world’s best player, says her family still has her rejection letter from before the 2006 Torino Winter Games, when she was in high school.
For Vancouver 2010 and Sochi 2014, players trying out for the national team gathered in a room and listened as the U.S. head coach read off the names of those who made it.
Alex Rigsby remembers sitting in that room in Lake Placid, N.Y., in June 2013.
Rigsby, then a University of Wisconsin rising senior, was one of four goaltenders trying out for three spots on the national team, along with the three veteran 2010 Olympic goalies — Brianne McLaughlin, Molly Schaus and Jessie Vetter.
The Olympic team would not be announced until Jan. 1, 2014, but this was for all intents and purposes the goalies’ decision day.
Three goalies make the national team. Three goalies would make the Olympic team.
In that Lake Placid room, U.S. head coach Katey Stone read off the national team names alphabetically.
McLaughlin … Schaus … Vetter.
Rigsby did not hear her name. She was essentially the last goalie cut from the 2014 Olympic team.
“My heart just sank, head down, couldn’t believe it,” Rigsby remembered. “We had to pack our bags and leave. They had flights for us already. We had to go.”
The 2017-18 U.S. women’s national team will be announced Friday to wrap up a 42-player tryout camp in Florida.
The national team will consist of 23 players. That’s the same number as the Olympic team that will be named closer to the PyeongChang Winter Games.
Rigsby is now one of the veterans among six goalies trying out for three spots this week.
The only one with Olympic experience is Vetter, Rigsby’s fellow former Badger and training partner who gave birth to a boy on Feb. 27.
Rigsby played in the 2015, 2016 and 2017 World Championships, including shutting out Canada in an overtime win in the 2016 gold-medal game as she supplanted Vetter atop the depth chart. That was the first time Canada failed to score in an Olympic or world final since 2005.
Rigsby did not impress at the 2017 Worlds, playing in one game (and giving up three goals to Finland). Nicole Hensley earned both starts against Canada and notched two victories. Maddie Rooney, the youngest of six goalies at this week’s camp at age 19, was also on the 2017 Worlds roster.
Rigsby has carried a chip on her shoulder for the last four years after being cut.
“In life you need to prove people right and prove people wrong when you get the chance,” she tweeted the day the 2013-14 national team was announced.
Rigsby has already proven wrong a doctor who told her that she would never play at the elite level. She had to re-learn how to walk and skate after left hip surgery in 2010 and right hip surgery in 2011, the latter after backstopping Wisconsin to a national title as a freshman.
“Dropping into a butterfly [stance] again was one of the most terrifying things, but had to trust that I was far enough along in the healing process that I wouldn’t mess anything up,” she said.
Rigsby made her first worlds team in 2013 but didn’t see any game action behind Vetter and McLaughlin. Schaus missed that tournament due to a personal matter.
Though Schaus returned for the 2013-14 national team camp three months later, Rigsby felt she had performed well at camp. When coach Stone named the national team, longtime friend Brianna Decker said she sat next to Rigsby to take in the moment together. Decker made the team, but her roommate for three years in Madison did not.
“When I didn’t hear [Rigsby’s] name, it was hard for me to even enjoy myself being on the roster,” Decker said.
Rather than join a post-collegiate women’s league like the NWHL in the Northeast or CWHL in Canada, Rigsby chose to stay in the Midwest after graduating from Wisconsin.
She gets games in for the Minnesota Whitecaps, a women’s team dubbed “a collection of unpaid Midwestern hockey nomads who barnstorm against college teams” by The New York Times. The Whitecaps roster also includes Olympians, such as Jenny Potter, a 38-year-old who played on the first four U.S. Olympic women’s hockey teams in 1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010.
Rigsby also fills in on a 35-and-over men’s league team for a goalie who is a firefighter. In summers, she trains with NHL players in Madison and runs stadiums at Camp Randall (bleachers, not stairs).
She hopes to play only for the red, white and blue this fall and winter.
Rigsby wears a patriotic goalie mask custom molded to the shape of her head. She received it three days before her 2016 Worlds gold-medal-game shutout of Canada.
The mask features iconic American women on the right — Lucille Ball, Marilyn Monroe and Lady Liberty. On the left is Uncle Sam and a bald eagle.
The mask gets personal on the back.
A four-leaf clover for her grandfather who was born on St. Patrick’s Day and died when Rigsby was 5.
The initials of Latvian Ulvis Katlaps, the coach who helped make Rigsby a goalie and put the Olympics in her head at age 7. Katlaps died in 2013 at age 45 due to stomach cancer.
And a symbol for breast cancer for her mom, Nancy, who was diagnosed in 2012. It has been in remission for about four years.
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