Paralympic hopes become secondary for the only woman on the ice

Lena Schroeder
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In 2018, Lena Schroeder became the second woman to participate in a Paralympic hockey tournament, and the first in 24 years.

She hopes to return for a second Paralympic Games for Norway in 2022, but another part of her life takes precedent: working as a doctor, and recently fighting the coronavirus in a hospital outside Oslo.

“My plan is to continue to play hockey as long as I can,” the 27-year-old Schroeder said. “If I find out that I’m not as skilled as I was, or I can’t work out as much as I think I should, then that would be a problem. I would probably be forced to quit [hockey].”

In PyeongChang, Schroeder was on the ice for 5 minutes, 13 seconds, in one game for Norway, which finished fifth of eight teams.

The Paralympic hockey tournament is technically mixed gender, since there is no separate women’s event. Before Schroeder, no woman participated since fellow Norwegian Brit Mjaasund Oejen at the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Games.

Schroeder became a story in South Korea. She was featured by the BBC, Agence France-Presse (the national news agency of France) and Marca, a leading Spanish daily sports newspaper.

A nation receives an extra roster spot for a female player, but she would have earned a place on the team without the exception, Norway’s coach said.

“We said all the way that Lena was being picked for the team because of her skill level and not because she was a female,” Espen Hegde said earlier this month. “She was there as our No. 14 or 15 [skater out of 16] on the roster, but she was there on the same level as the guys.”

Schroeder, born with spina bifida, played violin for nine years but gave it up once she discovered hockey for the first time at age 15 in 2008. She soon began playing in local games with some men from the national team. By 2011, coaches knew about her and she took part in a more organized session with the national team.

“But I wasn’t ready for it,” she said. “I was too slow, and I couldn’t keep up with the guys. I had it as a personal goal to make it onto the national team. I was constantly working to get on the team.”

Schroeder seized her next chance in a 2013 tryout and made the team. She played her first game for Norway in 2014.

“We expected a smart and skillful player,” Hegde said, “and she was able to live up to those expectations.”

PyeongChang was historic, but could have been even more memorable. She spent more time doing interviews than on the ice in games.

“I wasn’t as essential to the team that I want to be,” she said. “It was great at that time, but I would really like to contribute some more to the team.”

That happened at the 2019 World Championship. Schroeder played every game, partially due to her improvement and partially because of other skaters’ injuries. Norway again finished fifth, the top-ranked team of those that missed the medal round.

“She deserved more minutes on the ice,” Hegde said.

Schroeder played all those games with the national team while taking medical school classes at the University of Oslo, or while putting them off to pursue the Paralympics. After seven years, she became a doctor last Dec. 13 (and had a game to play later that night).

An already busy life accelerated this year. She went from working as a nurse and lab assistant in a private clinic to a doctor in the cardiology ward of Akershus University Hospital on the outskirts of Oslo in April. She had planned to spend that month with the national team, preparing and playing at the European Championships, which were canceled due to the pandemic.

Then she moved to the ER for 13-hour shifts, helping identify patients who may have the coronavirus, as first reported by Paralympic.org.

“They needed extra people in the hospital because of Covid-19,” she said. “I was a bit of a wreck the first week or two, then, gradually, I began to understand my role.”

Schroeder, after finishing shifts and shedding PPE, works out as much as possible. She gathered with the national team earlier this month.

“I really want to continue playing hockey, but they know as well as I know that it’s going to be hard working so much,” she said.

The coaching staff accepts Schroeder will train less but struck a deal to keep her in mind once competition resumes.

“We’ve talked to her about her speed, which has been her biggest obstacle as a player,” said Hegde, who is now the general manager. “Of course, being a female competing with guys who are stronger, she needs to compensate by being smarter and more skillful. I’m really not worried about her smartness or her technique, but we told her, if you want to pursue being a doctor, that’s fine with us, but you need to work on your speed.”

Schroeder embraced the challenge.

“If me working as much as I do in the hospital doesn’t negatively affect my skills on the ice, then I’ll be able to play,” she said.

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