An Olympian and IOC board member reflects on a life in sports
“Sport is such a reflection of society, and when you have equal numbers of women and men, it reflects on how you value women and where you place them in society.” – Angela Ruggiero
A few years ago, I interviewed Olympian Angela Ruggiero for our COLE LifeChat Series. Angela was recently elected to executive board of the International Olympic Committee and is now one of 2 Americans on the 15 member board. A medalist and four-time Olympian on the US Ice Hockey Team, she was inducted last November into the Hockey Hall of Fame – the fourth woman and second American woman to do so. In celebration of the start of the Olympics, I thought I’d share my 2013 interview with Angela, where we talked about finding trusted mentors, her life in sports, and the positive impact of sports on society.
How did you get into the sports world?
When I was seven years old, my father signed my brother, my sister, and myself up for hockey in Southern California. I instantly fell in love with the sport. For years, we travelled throughout California playing hockey and ever since, I have made a career out of my love of sports.
What challenges did you face as a female playing in a male dominated sport such as ice-hockey and how did you overcome those?
One story that always sticks out in my head is getting cut from an All-Star hockey team at age nine. My brother made the team, but I didn’t, even though I was clearly one of the best players on the team. I learned what gender meant at that age: because I was a girl, they didn’t want to be “embarrassed” by having me on their team.
After getting cut, my dad told me “you can quit, or you can try out for the team again and make sure that this time, you are the best on the team, and then there’s no way they can cut you.”
After hearing that, I decided that I was going to try even harder, and from that point on, instead of just having fun, I had a purpose and intent when I was on the ice. I carried around my vision of making that team the next time, and I wanted to prove to everyone, including myself, that I belonged on the ice and that I could play with boys.
This drive lit a fire in me and enabled me to push through things when they got hard. From my point of view as a nine year old girl, I loved the sport and I didn’t see any reason to give it up simply because others didn’t want me on the ice. I refused to give up, and the fact that people were trying to take that away from me just inspired me to play more, and work harder at the sport.
Can you tell us more about your work on the IOC and the IOC Women’s Leadership Initiative?
I jumped at the opportunity to be a part of the IOC, and have now been a member for 3 years. It’s been an unbelievable experience. I think there are currently 19 women members, so it’s a growing number, but it’s still not where it could be. But I love the opportunities the IOC gives me to contribute to social change through sports.
A recent major accomplishment by the IOC was having at least one female representative from every country in the 2012 London Olympics. To me, even if those athletes weren’t successful, the fact that they were competing and they were visible to everyone was most important. The potential for them to inspire a whole new generation of women to try a sport and demonstrate the possibility for women to succeed in sports is incredible. Sport is such a reflection of society, and when you have equal numbers of women and men, it reflects on how you value women and where you place them in society. If sports are only open to one gender, then that’s a real loss of what sport can teach you. Having opportunities for both boys and girls is critically important to every society. The IOC sees that so we’re constantly trying to push other countries and other sports to open their doors to everyone.
How have you come to find trusted advisors and mentors?
There are too many athletes that allow their parents and coaches to lay out their life plan for them, but these ‘advisors’ don’t necessarily know what the athlete wants beyond just playing the sport. Athletes must engage with people outside of their circle. They need to step outside of their comfort zone and create a life outside of their sport, whether that includes volunteering, sitting on a sports board, working part time, or interning.
As an athlete, I think you’re able to get your foot in any person’s door simply by telling your story as part of a team. If you find someone with a particular career that interests you, you have to use that opportunity to get in contact with them, and simply sit down and pick their brain about what they do for a living, or how they can help you further your interest in their career. You might need to do this with ten people, but if you connect with just one of them, this could lead to incredible opportunities.
For example, when I was thinking about applying to Harvard Business School (HBS), I knew that Jessica Gelman, who now works for the NFL’s New England Patriots, was a HBS graduate. As an undergrad at Harvard University, I would sometimes meet up with Jessica to discuss life after sports and Harvard, and through the years we’ve stayed in touch. So ten years later, when I decided to apply to Business School, she was a great resource – she walked me through the application process. She is a perfect example of someone outside of my network that I kept in contact with who was willing to help me when I needed guidance.
We’re more likely to seek out individuals who are like us, but we must think outside the box. Within an industry, you may not always find someone who looks like you or acts like you, but if they’re in an industry you’re interested in, it’s worth contacting them. Once you find those connections, you need to hold onto them to continue the relationship.
For many athletes, being on a team and playing their sport is such an integral part of their identity, so retiring can be very difficult for them. However, you retired in 2011, and were able to make the transition and parlay your sports and athletics background in ways beyond. What was going through your mind when you made those transitions?
I think it’s very important for athletes to get some sort of degree, so when they retire they have something tangible that will help them start their next career path. Of course transitioning wasn’t easy, but I’ve always thought about my life after hockey because I always knew at some point my hockey playing days were going to end. Thinking about this caused me to be involved with as many sports-related things as possible, including the Women’s Sports Foundation, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and my schools – Angela Ruggiero Girls Hockey School and Angela Ruggiero Day Camps.
I think it’s very important for athletes to understand that there are other things outside of playing sports and to take advantage of other opportunities that come their way. The athletes who have solely stuck to their sport and aren’t involved in anything else while they play are the ones who have the toughest time transitioning because they have never thought about life after retirement.
Typically, retired athletes ask themselves “What am I going to do with my athletic skills? They’re useless now.” I think they’re absolutely wrong. While they might not be able to use their jump shot, their slap shot, or their running abilities, they have to realize that the keys to being a successful athlete are used in everyday life. Athletes have to use the self-awareness they gain from playing a sport in the real world outside of athletics. Athletes undermine their abilities; they don’t give themselves enough credit outside of the sports world. They see themselves solely as athletes. Athletes need to start recognizing that they can apply their skills to other areas in their lives. This will empower them to think more, and see themselves as more than just athletes.
Also, I think it’s very important to find people that are supportive of you and that help you think about your future while you’re training. A lot of times your coaches, parents, trainers, whoever, are focused on the short-term result of your next competition, while they should be thinking about the next 10 or 20 years of your life. You need to also find mentors to help guide you, even if it’s just sitting down for coffee with people who are willing to help you think about your future while you’re training.
With your busy schedule, how do you approach the work-life integration problems that so many women struggle with?
For me, sleep is one of my number one priorities. If I don’t get enough sleep I can’t function at the level I need to everyday, so I try to get to bed at a decent hour every night. I also try to stay active; because I’ve found that when I stick to a schedule and get to the gym, I have a lot more mental clarity, I’m happier, and I feel more productive. I think I’m able to juggle more things when exercising is somewhere in my schedule. To me, taking care of my body is very important to both my mental and physical health. Having strong physical and mental health plays a large role in your work-life balance. If you’re all work, and you don’t take care of yourself, you will burn out at some point.
What advice would you give yourself at age sixteen?
I would tell myself to keep doing what you’re doing. Don’t stress out, but stay focused; the sacrifices you’re making will pay off. Stay positive, surround yourself with good people, and of course, try to stay out of trouble. I think a lot of teenage athletes have to sacrifice a lot of their childhood at the expense of what they want to accomplish in the long run.
But I wouldn’t want to give myself too much advice, because I’d want to have myself figure it out on my own, and go through challenges so that I could learn for myself, versus just avoiding all things that are hard.
This post was originally published on LinkedIn.com.