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From soccer to sleds: An athlete's path to the 2022 Paralympics

Hanna Hughes keeps competitive mindset nearly a decade after leg amputation

by Kayleigh Jackson / Wild.com

ROCHESTER -- Hanna Hughes' life revolved around soccer. But in her sophomore year of high school, that would suddenly change.

After feeling ill, doctors investigated and found a tumor the size of a grapefruit in her right hip. Hanna was diagnosed with bone cancer and underwent 27 rounds of chemotherapy before one of her legs, half her pelvis and her hip were quickly amputated.

Just like that, she found herself at a crossroads, unable to play the sport that had meant so much to her.

Now fast forward a few years.

At age 24, Hanna is a talented sled hockey player, playing on the almost all-men's Minnesota Wild team and campaigning to make the 2022 Paralympics in Beijing with the USA women's sled hockey team.

The story of how she moved from the soccer pitch to the hockey rink is one that brings a smile to her face as she recalls it. While in her freshman year at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, Hanna was in her wheelchair, trying to find an elevator. A wheelchair-bound young man named Ezra McPhail was also searching, and they struck up a conversation.

"He asked me if I had ever thought about playing hockey and I thought he was joking," Hughes said. "But he showed me it, and I started going out to practices with him and then I started playing with the Minnesota Wild sled hockey team.

"He was like, 'you're actually not that bad!' We were both pretty surprised," Hughes said with a laugh. Today, she and McPhail are still Wild sled hockey teammates.

From there, it was certain: Hanna had found her new passion.

"I was super intimidated at first because sled hockey is an all-checking sport, so I'm getting checked by guys that are twice my size. I was really scared at first," Hughes said. "But I fell in love with it."

The only woman on a team full of men, Hanna described the rest of the Wild sled hockey team as her "big brothers." Undoubtedly, she said, that atmosphere helped her adjust to her new sport.

It also prepared her to make the first-ever U.S. women's sled hockey team roster this past fall.

Hanna quickly realized that sled hockey required an entirely different set of muscles than soccer, but her athletic background helped her adapt quickly. Her determination and drive to succeed pushed her forward both on and off the ice.

"A lot of the same motions I use in my wheelchair, I use in sled hockey," Hughes said. "Being in a wheelchair now, and with sports too… you just have to have a competitive mindset."

That much is clear from Hanna's quick rise to the top of the sled hockey world. Though she's on a team of women who have played sled hockey all or most of their life, and she only has a few years of experience, she's grown her game to play on the same high level required in international competition.

While the women's sled hockey team won't compete at the 2018 Paralympics in Pyeongchang, the sport is continuing to grow internationally. With an increasing number of teams and players with experience, Hanna expects sled hockey will officially be on the docket by 2022.

"There's a lot of really talented girls out there [on the United States women's team]," Hughes said.

There needs to be a minimum of six international teams for a sport to be eligible to compete for a medal, and while women's sled hockey is getting closer, it's still a work in progress.

But the future is bright. New developmental sled hockey teams have begun to pop up around Minnesota and elsewhere in the United States, and burgeoning European squads are gaining resources and followers.

In May, Hanna and the U.S. team will take a trip across the pond -- either to Great Britain or the Czech Republic -- for the World Cup of Sled Hockey. "That will hopefully help grow the sport for women," Hughes said.

Hanna is currently on track to earn a Master's in Strategic Communciation Management from Concordia University by 2022 -- the same year she hopes to be playing in the Paralympics -- while also working full-time at a non-profit. A trip to Asia this winter might be a welcome respite.

Then again, maybe not. If the past several years are any indication, Hanna won't be slowing down any time soon.

Her indefatigable attitude coupled with the support she's found in the Minnesota hockey community have helped her remain optimistic, she says. And for others who may find themselves in a similar situation down the road, Hanna has some words of advice.  

"I thought my days of sports were over, but they weren't," Hughes said. "Don't sell yourself short; there's a lot of opportunities out there so give everything a try." 

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