In sled hockey, coed in name only, women are building their own Paralympic pipeline

Photo Courtesy Kelsey DiClaudio

Swedish sled hockey player Amanda Ahrnbom arrived at the 2006 Torino Paralympics aiming to represent her country. Instead, she was ruled ineligible by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) during team processing after the organization learned she was a woman.

“I don’t think it is right and I am disappointed,” Ahrnbom said in 2006.

Ahrnbom was allowed to remain in the village and compete in a pre-Paralympic game between the U.S. and Sweden – which was ironically held on International Women’s Day. As for the actual Paralympic sled hockey tournament, she was relegated to the bench, serving as the de-facto cheerleader.

“It’s really very unfortunate for Amanda. There was a misunderstanding on the part of both parties,” then IPC spokeswoman Miriam Wilkens said in 2006.

Sled Hockey: A mixed gender sport that isn’t usually mixed gender

When sled hockey (also known as sledge hockey or para ice hockey) debuted at the 1994 Lillehammer Paralympics, it was a mixed gender sport. One woman – Norway’s Britt Mjaasund Oyen – competed in the inaugural tournament. At some point in the late 1990s or early 2000s (the exact year is unclear), the sport switched to being open only to men – thus leading to Ahrnbom’s exclusion when she arrived in Italy in 2006.

The incident in Torino sparked sled hockey being switched back to mixed gender status ahead of the 2010 Vancouver Paralympics. But it wasn’t until 2018 that a second woman – Norway’s Lena Schroeder – broke through to compete at the Paralympics.

In Beijing, a third woman – China’s Yu Jing – made her Paralympic debut. She didn’t touch the ice in five of six games, including China’s 4-0 bronze-medal win on Saturday. But she did get a few minutes of ice time in a 6-0 win over Italy on Tuesday, which – coincidentally or not – was on International Women’s Day.

Yu Jing of China (left) competes during China's preliminary round para ice hockey game against Italy at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China.
Yu Jing of China (left) competes during China’s preliminary round para ice hockey game against Italy at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China. (Photo by Lan Hongguang/Xinhua via Getty Images)

“My debut at the Paralympic Winter Games is my gift to myself on this International Women’s Day,” said Yu, who started playing sled hockey two-and-a-half years ago. “I hope that women out there will see my debut and believe that there is a chance for them to be on the same stage. Disabled women all over the world, I hope they know it’s not impossible, and I hope they see this as encouragement.”

World Para Hockey celebrated Yu Jing’s achievement on Twitter, using the International Women’s Day hashtag. But nearly 6,000 miles away, U.S. sled hockey player Kelsey DiClaudio struggled with the message she was seeing.

“Having only 3 female athletes participate in the games since 1994 is quite sad,” DiClaudio wrote on Twitter. “Internationally, para ice hockey is not a mixed event. Many countries don’t consider their female players for national teams.”

DiClaudio, who started playing sled hockey at age 9, knows that her belief in herself is not what is holding her back from competing at the Paralympic Games.

“Since 2010, when I watched the Vancouver Paralympic Games, it became my dream from that point on that I wanted to get to the Paralympics,” the 24-year-old told On Her Turf. “My goal was to make the men’s national team. That was the only goal I had, it was tunnel vision. And I was told, ‘We have a spot open for a girl, if she’s good enough.'”

The question of whether DiClaudio is “good enough” isn’t really the right one to ask, though many of her teammates insist that she is. Instead, it is whether DiClaudio and other female sled hockey players are set up for success in a so-called mixed gender sport.

The answer there is a resounding ‘no.’

“The reality is that you are still running a men’s tournament and it’s being disguised as a mixed gender tournament,” said Tara Chisholm, head coach of the Canadian women’s ice sledge hockey team.

Is sled hockey’s ‘mixed gender’ label doing more harm than good?

In addition to having the “mixed gender” label, sled hockey also features a perplexing rule that – while perhaps well intentioned – has been ineffective at best and harmful at worst. While men’s-only teams max out at 17 players, rosters are allowed to expand to 18 athletes if a woman is included.

“That rule, in theory, was attempting to be more inclusive towards women. In reality, it’s actually really inhibited the development of women’s para ice hockey because the argument has always been, ‘Well, there is a place for them. They just haven’t broken (onto) the roster yet.’ And in a full-contact sport, that’s a lot to ask,” said Peggy Assinck, who has been a member of the Canadian women’s team since it formed in 2007.

“It’s like someone dangling a dollar in front of your face and saying that, ‘You’ve worked this hard, you’re going to get it,’ and then getting it taking it away,” DiClaudio said of the potential 18th roster spot. “I did have a lot of hope that I would make the team. But as the years went on, it kind of dwindled more and more.”

DiClaudio isn’t alone.

“The number of times that women have had the dream of rostering to the men’s Canadian national team, and were told flat out by national team coaches, that there was no chance of that ever happening, just happened over and over and over again,” said Assinck. “It basically depleted those dreams.”

While Assinck believes the “mixed gender” label might be helpful in nations where the sport is still developing – like China or Norway – for powerhouses like the U.S. and Canada, it is instead serving as a barrier.

As a result, in recent years, many members of the women’s sled hockey community have shifted their focus from trying to break onto men’s rosters to dedicating their energy to developing the women’s game.

Doing so would help even the playing field at the Winter Paralympics, where the gender disparity still skews heavily male. Of the 564 athletes competing in Beijing, only 138 (24%) are women. While sled hockey is not the only winter Paralympic sport with a wide gender gap, the fact that 117 out of 118 sled hockey athletes in 2022 are men plays a large role in tipping the scales.

The creation of the U.S. women’s sled hockey team

Shortly after Ahrnbom was nixed from Sweden’s Paralympic roster in 2006, a U.S. player received a similar message.

Erica Mitchell (now McKee) made the U.S. men’s junior team in 2004, and in 2006, she was named captain of the roster, becoming the first – and only – woman to serve in that role.

Mitchell was talented enough to be in the mix for a roster spot on the U.S. senior national team. But ahead of a selection event in 2007, she was told that while she was allowed to tryout, she wouldn’t be allowed to make the team because she was a woman. 

“My heart sank and I just started crying uncontrollably, I had never in my life been segregated from the sport that I love because I was a female,” Mitchell recounted to Think Progress in 2018.

The impact that Mitchell sparked with her anger and frustration cannot be understated.

“She literally created the women’s team,” said Monica Quimby, who has been a member of said team since 2014. “Erica was told to basically make her own team, and that’s exactly what she did.”

With the help of “the Toms” – Tom Koester and Tom Brake – the U.S. women’s sled hockey team was founded in 2007, and in May of that year, the first-ever women’s sled hockey game was played. Two current national team players – Mitchell from the United States and Assinck from Canada – took part in that inaugural game, though country lines got a little blurred.

“There were not enough women on the USA team, so I actually wore a USA jersey for that first game,” Assinck explains.

The first ever women’s sled hockey game in May 2007 featured the U.S. and Canada. Canadian Peggy Assinck (fourth from the right) competed with the U.S. team. (Photo courtesy of Peggy Assinck)

In the years that followed, both the U.S. and Canadian women’s hockey teams continued to develop. In that first decade, both teams were self-funded and operated, existing outside of their respective national governing bodies. In the U.S., “the Toms” funded the women’s sled hockey team.

“Without their support, we wouldn’t have been able to have the growth, the expansion, the amount of camps,” Quimby said.

While the Canadian team continues to operate independently of Hockey Canada to this day, in 2018, the U.S. women’s sled hockey team was taken under the umbrella of USA Hockey.

The shift came with a name change, with the U.S. women’s sled hockey team rebranded as the U.S. women’s development sled hockey team.

Female players are now siloed under the development wing of USA Hockey, along with the men’s development team. At the same time, the U.S. national sled hockey team has remained without a gender modifier. But in actuality, it is a coed team in name only. No woman has ever made the U.S. sled hockey team at the senior national level. 

Quimby says the move was bittersweet. “We saw it as a step forward towards the Paralympics – the ultimate goal.”

But it has also resulted in fewer playing opportunities. Under the Toms, “We were having seven or eight camps (a year), and multiple international trips,” Quimby said. “Now, we’re only having three or four camps.”

On Her Turf reached out to USA Hockey about the organization’s goals for women’s sled hockey at the domestic and international level, but did not receive a response prior to publication.

For Maddy Eberhard, the move to USA Hockey also marked the start of a dark chapter. In June 2020, she publicly accused a male player and a male executive at USA Hockey of sexual harassment in a story published by The Athletic.

Eberhard wasn’t sure if she wanted to keep playing, but ultimately, the support of her teammates motivated her to continue. “They’re all sisters of mine and I know I can reach out to them with anything that I have going on, whether that be hockey related or not,” she said.

Members of the U.S. women's development sled hockey team at a camp in January 2022. From left to right: Maddy Eberhard, Kelsey DiClaudio, Katie Ladlie, Monica Quimby, and Erica McKee (nee Mitchell).
Members of the U.S. women’s development sled hockey team at a camp in January 2022. From left to right: Maddy Eberhard, Kelsey DiClaudio, Katie Ladlie, Monica Quimby, and Erica McKee (nee Mitchell). (Photo courtesy of DiClaudio)

Is it any surprise that a USA-Canada rivalry extends to women’s sled hockey?

During last month’s Winter Olympics, the Toronto Star published a column arguing that women’s hockey doesn’t belong in the Olympics because the U.S. and Canada are too dominant. The article resulted in what was perhaps the most unified moment in recent women’s hockey history, with players, coaches and fans coming together to condemn the bad take.

And yet, the dominance of only two teams – the U.S. and Canada – is the reason women’s sled hockey is not currently on the Paralympic program.

“What is holding us back is the lack of international teams,” Assinck said.

It is for that reason that Tara Chisholm, the head coach of Canada’s women’s sled hockey team (a volunteer position), spends a surprising amount of time not actually focused on team Canada.

Chisholm, who lives in Medicine Hat, Alberta, splits her time working eight different positions (five paid, three in a volunteer capacity) – all in the adaptive sports realm.

Over the years, she has developed contacts in 14 nations and counting – from Australia to Japan to Armenia – with the goal of growing women’s hockey internationally. Chisholm leads zoom calls and other workshops to pass along any coaching resources and tips she can. Whenever the Canadian team travels to international events, the players bring donated equipment with them.

“It’s kind of just all hands on deck, trying to do whatever we can to grow the sport,” she said.

While Chisholm’s work is certainly making an impact, it is not entirely altruistic.

As DiClaudio puts it: “Unfortunately, the U.S. and Canada are such big powerhouses in the sport… No matter how much we grow, if the other countries aren’t growing, we can’t get to the Paralympic Games.”

Assinck, who has been a member of the Canadian team since that inaugural 2007 game, has also taken that commitment of growing the game internationally to heart.

After completing her PhD in Neuroscience at the University of British Columbia in 2017, she moved to Great Britain to become a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Edinburgh.

“It became kind of clear to me that, since I was here, I should probably be doing more to help develop women’s sled hockey,” she says.

While most sports paused at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Assinck instead used the time to recruit a national team player pool. She created a social media campaign, which was amplified by World Para Ice Hockey, local para sport organizations, as well as Channel 4, which broadcasts the Paralympics in United Kingdom.

Over 60 women expressed interest and 27 were ultimately selected for the first camp.

And then came the challenge of equipping the players. “We spent a huge amount of money to ship (equipment) from Canada to the UK to my living room,” Assinck says.

After more than a year of planning, at 11pm on a Friday night in October, the players and volunteer staff convened at Planet Ice Widnes – a rink midway between Liverpool and Manchester – for their first on-ice session. A representative from the IPC was even there.

“It was absolutely amazing,” said Assinck, who has also served as an assistant coach of Great Britain’s men’s team. “(The players) are quite aware that they’re at a development phase compared to Canada and USA… But they’re also excited to be trailblazers.”

Players gather together during a Great Britain women’s para ice hockey camp in October 2021. (Credit: Haganova Photo) 

In the near-term, funding remains a major barrier. While Assinck and other volunteers paid for the first camp out-of-pocket, players will be responsible for paying their own way to compete at future tournaments and camps, which is a burden Assinck is familiar with first-hand.

Because Canada’s team operates independently from Hockey Canada, the team gets by on fundraising and player fees, with coaches and staff serving in a volunteer capacity. Since that inaugural game in 2007, Assinck estimates that she’s spent about $5,000 a year to get herself to camps and tournaments, a decision that has caused her to go into debt.

“I have just comfortably gone into debt because (this sport) meant so much to me, but that’s not a reality for most women. That’s not a reality for most women with disabilities,” she said. “A lot of women have decided that playing para ice hockey couldn’t be a priority, financially.”

With no timeline for Paralympic inclusion, some female sled hockey players have also opted to pursue other sports.

At the 2022 Beijing Winter Games, Canadian Christina Picton and American Lera Doederlein – considered two of the best female sled hockey players in the world – are instead making their Paralympic debuts in nordic skiing.

Beijing 2022 Winter Paralympics - Day 4
Because women’s sled hockey is not a Paralympic sport, Canada’s Christina Picton turned her attention to Nordic skiing. The 28-year-old is making her debut at the 2022 Winter Paralympics in Beijing, China. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

“That was always the dream to be here as well for para ice hockey, but I’m so fortunate to be on the para Nordic skiing team and to be surrounded and training with excellent coaches and amazing athletes I’m so, so lucky to be here with this crew,” Picton said on Friday after finishing seventh in the women’s individual biathlon sitting competition.

A circular problem with no single solution

Despite the grassroots efforts to grow women’s sled hockey, the future remains unclear. And for players who have been involved for over a decade, the soundtrack is getting old.

“They keep saying ‘Four more years, four more years, four more years,” Quimby said. “(Let’s) create a plan, a concrete timeline, and move towards that… Saying ‘four more years’ every four years is not going to get us where we need to go.”

Assinck, 38, gets it. “As a young girl, I remember the dialogue being, ‘Soon we’re going to be in the Paralympics.’ … And obviously that hasn’t yet come to fruition.

“It’s a circular problem. If we were in the Paralympics, everyone would create a team. But because we’re not, nobody’s creating a team. And unfortunately, that’s a really tough cycle to be kind of stuck in.”

It’s the type of problem that needs to be solved using concurrent approaches: a team of dedicated and passionate grassroots personnel who are, in turn, supported by top-down initiatives.

In 2014, World Para Ice Hockey launched a women’s program thanks to a grant from the Agitos Foundation, a funding initiative program run by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC). A spokesperson for World Para Ice Hockey said a number of additional grants have helped fund both female-only and mixed team training camps since.

But Taylor Lipsett, a three-time Paralympic sled hockey medalist for the U.S. who is serving as an analyst for NBC during the 2022 Winter Paralympics, believes more support is needed.

Unlike at the Olympics, where sport federations are governed by – but operate independently from – the International Olympic Committee, the International Paralympic Committee serves as the governing body for five of six winter Paralympic sports (all but wheelchair curling, which is overseen by the World Curling Federation).

“The IPC has to take charge. They’re responsible for governing the sport, and I don’t think they’ve done a great job on the women’s side,” Lipsett said.  “It’s their responsibility to invest in various European countries, Asian countries to develop the women’s game, and they haven’t done that.”

While both the International Paralympic Committee and International Olympic Committee have discontinued the use of demonstration events since the 1990s, Lipsett thinks that model could help women’s sled hockey.

“I see no reason why it couldn’t (have been) in Beijing as a demonstration sport,” he said. “That would be a huge thing for the development of women’s sled hockey. But someone has to make that decision to allow that, to make that happen.”

Later this year, World Para Ice Hockey plans to hold a Women’s World Challenge tournament, with three to five teams expected to compete.

But the dates and host city haven’t yet been announced, and while that might not sound like a big deal, Chisholm says the absence of a consistent schedule and advance notice has impacted the growth of the game internationally.

“That is actually one of our biggest barriers. Women would train and they wouldn’t know what they were training for,” she said.

“One of the things that we’ve asked is to have (an event) every year at the same time… (That way) when I’m talking to other nations, I can say, ‘Hey, this is happening. Start planning for it. And what can we do to support you to get there?'”

Looking further ahead, a spokesperson for World Para Ice Hockey said via email that the organization does not currently have a specific timeline for the inclusion of women’s sled hockey at the Winter Paralympics.

“I can’t lie. It’s definitely hard,” said Katie Ladlie, a member of the U.S. women’s sled hockey team since 2015. “I have those days where I think, ‘How long is this going to take? How many times are we going to be told something and then the rug is going to be taken out from under us again?'”

With the Paralympics out of reach for now, the thing that keeps these women motivated is the same as what has powered female athletes in nearly every sport: the next generation.

“A lot of my energy and my focus and time is geared not only to my dreams, but women’s sled hockey in general,” DiClaudio said. “I just love (the sport) so much that I can’t leave at this point. If it’s my burden to bear, to play this sport and help grow it, I’m ok with that.”

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

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Li Li Leung talks USA Gymnastics’ cultural transformation, challenges still to come and embracing her AAPI heritage

Head of USA Gymnastics Li Li Leung.
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Li Li Leung joined USA Gymnastics as president and CEO in March 2019, when the organization was reeling from the fallout of Larry Nassar’s widespread sexual abuse and the subsequent revelations of larger cultural issues within the sport. Since then, Leung has seen USAG through an ongoing transformation, one that hinges on the work of the survivors and staff around her, whom she is quick to credit. That evolution, as she calls it, has included instituting new norms and standards at all levels of the sport, particularly in matters related to athlete safety.

Among the notable USAG initiatives that Leung has brought to fruition is the Athlete Bill of Rights, established in December 2020 as a tool “to unite the full gymnastics community around a shared vision of behavioral expectations.” At the same time, USAG instituted a protest policy for national team members aimed at supporting athletes who choose to use their voice on public platforms. Both initiatives were among the first of their kind in sport.

Prior to joining USAG, Leung served as a vice president at the National Basketball Association (NBA), where she was responsible for building and managing key partner relationships around the world. She continues to use that experience in her roles as vice chair of the National Governing Bodies Council of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee and a member of the International Gymnastics Federation’s Executive Committee.

Leung, who began competing in gymnastics at age 7, was a member of the U.S. junior national training team and represented the U.S. at the 1988 Junior Pan American Games. She was a four-year member of the four-time Big 10 champion University of Michigan gymnastics team and was an NCAA Championships participant.

In honor of Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, On Her Turf sat down with Leung to talk about her journey with USAG, the challenges still to come and how being a member of the AAPI community has shaped the person she is today.

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This Q+A has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

On Her Turf: Let’s start by talking about your journey since joining USA Gymnastics in 2019. What have the last four years been like for you?

Li Li Leung: This was just an incredible opportunity to give back to the sport that has given so much to me. And I really mean that because I started in the sport when I was 7 years old and did it for 15 years. It’s taught me all of these different skills that I apply to my daily life, both professional and personal. It feels a little bit like I’ve come full circle, and honestly, never in a million years did I think I would find myself in this role. … I joined at a time when it was a tumultuous time for the organization. It’s been just a little a little over four years now, and it has been an incredible journey — and believe it or not, I have enjoyed it. While it hasn’t been easy, I actually have enjoyed it, because I’ve been able to make it not just me. One thing that’s important to note is that — I had even said on my first interview with the board — it will take a village to accomplish what we need to accomplish. This is not a one-person job. And I was lucky enough to be able to bring on a leadership team that has been incredible, and also retain the staff that we have retained, as well as hire other new staff members. And it’s because of them and some really key volunteers that we’ve been able to accomplish what we’ve been able to do.

OHT: Can you talk a little more about this cultural transformation that the organization has experienced and your approach to tackling this all-encompassing change?

Leung: When I was interviewing for the position, I actually met every single board member. It was really critical to both sides that they felt that I matched the role and their needs and also I had to be confident in the board believing in the ultimate mission of the organization and what we wanted to achieve. So that the culture really does stem from the well – from the top down and everything in between as well. And when I was looking for leadership team, … one of the characteristics I was really looking for was they couldn’t have an ego. The job couldn’t be about themselves or about what they would personally get out of the role. It had to be about them believing in the bigger picture and believing in what we collectively wanted to achieve. I knew that we would only be able to accomplish what we need to accomplish if people were willing to roll up their sleeves and just do whatever needed to be done, so that was one of the key things in terms of having no ego.

Since 2018, we’ve turned over more than 70 percent of our staff. We’ve been able to retain the really key members of our staff, who have been critical to our success, but also have been able to really bring in new thinking, new blood, new perspectives. Because the other thing I was looking for when I was hiring for the leadership team was diversity in perspectives. That was critical because I did not want to be surrounded by “yes people.” I wanted to be surrounded by people who would be willing to have really robust conversations and engage in difficult conversations, because ultimately, you end up in a better place because of that.

In 2020, we reset our mission to be about building a community and culture of health, safety and excellence, with athletes who thrive in sport and in life. So we were no longer about developing technically superior gymnasts who perform well in gym. We reset our focus to be about helping set our athletes up for success with the skill sets that you learn in gymnastics, and when we come to the office each day, that’s what we’re thinking about. …

The other piece is we also know from a community standpoint that our national team coaches are the most visible representation (of USAG), and a lot of coaches model them. So we’ve been working really hard in terms of working on educating our national team coaches. We work with Positive Coaching Alliance to do educational training with them as well. And we also have introduced training specifically for young coaches coming in, because we know when they come in and they’re new, that they’re eager to learn, and that’s when you can start training and moving them in a way. So our thinking is with this top-down and bottom-up strategy, eventually the middle will meet.

OHT: You noted how the coaches can be some of the most visible representatives of USAG. Regarding the addition of 2008 Olympic silver medalists Chellsie Memmel (USAG technical lead) and Alicia Sacramone Quinn (USAG strategic lead), how have those women impacted the program?

Leung: The addition of Chellsie and Alicia has been fantastic. They have been phenomenal to work with, and the fact that they have firsthand experience of having gone through it themselves – that also gives them a very good idea of what they would change and what they wouldn’t change, at the same time. It has been a phenomenal addition to be able to have this perspective of firsthand, high-level, high-performing athletes to be able to lead our high-performance team. And the athletes are saying it as well. They’re saying, “We trust them; we feel confident in their decisions; we can relate to them” — all of those things that historically haven’t really happened before.

Then in terms of the athletes who are going to college and coming back to compete with USA Gymnastics – there are so many aspects that I think are great about this. One: It’s showing a lengthened career in a sport that historically has not been very long because it’s so demanding on the body. So that means that our athletes are physically healthier, as well, that they can train and compete at a high level for a longer period of time. It also means that they’re enjoying it more because they’re staying in the sport. From an emotional standpoint, they’re finding a lot more joy in the sport, and they’re talking about it, too. And we love the fact that they’re talking about it. We want them to talk about it, and we want them to have voices and feel open and free about sharing what they’re thinking about. I have to say I’ve been really enjoying seeing almost like — I’m not sure if I can go as far as a new era in the sport maybe — but just this evolution of the sport and the athletes changing in front of my eyes.

OHT: What do you consider now to still be the biggest challenge or obstacle for USAG?

Leung: There are a couple of big initiatives on the list. One is we want to build a training and wellness center where all of our disciplines will train under one roof. This is a long-term project, obviously, but my vision around it is that it will be the heart and hub of gymnastics in America. And while this is where national team athletes will ultimately train to some extent, it is going to be a welcoming place for athletes of all different disciplines and all different levels. We want it to be a place where young athletes can come through and see their role models training. We want this to be a place of education for our community and judges. We want to be able to run clinics there for all different levels. We just want this to be a gathering place of gymnastics and to be able to celebrate the sport there at the same time.

We’re also going to reset our foundation. There’s been the National Gymnastics Foundation, but we are going to reset it and basically be much more proactive on fundraising and development to grow the sport and also to raise more money for athletes in their training.

OHT: Turning to AAPI Heritage Month and being named to the 2023 Gold House A100 List (the A100 is named each May honoring 100 Asian Pacific leaders who made the greatest impact on culture and society over the past year). What did that honor mean to you?

Leung: It was such an incredible honor to be recognized by them, and my fellow honorees — when I read the list, I thought to myself, “I don’t belong.” There are some incredible names on that list. But again, I go back to what I said earlier: I owe this honor to a lot of the other people who work [at USAG]. I think the really important thing to recognize is that this was not done by just me. It was done by a lot of other people who are on staff and who aren’t getting the accolades or the recognition. But it was an incredible experience to be, and I’m very, very touched and honored to be on that list.

OHT: How do you identify within the Asian American Pacific Islander community? Did you embrace your heritage growing up and how has that shaped who you are today?

Leung: So I’ll tell you a story that I’ve mentioned to other people recently. I grew up in a town called Ridgewood in Bergen County, New Jersey, and most of my friends had blond hair and blue eyes. When I was growing up, I wanted the name “Nancy Smith,” and I wanted blue eyes. I wanted to fit in. As a kid, you always want to fit in. Then when you get older and wizen up a little bit, you realize that it’s okay and it’s good to be different, that you can use that to your advantage. And so upon growing up, I realized that it’s pretty special to be Asian American and there are benefits to being Asian American, and you should embrace the fact that you are different. In fact, I recently lectured to a women-in-sports-business class, and one of the questions they asked me was about impostor syndrome. I said the same thing that I’m saying to you now, which is absolutely embrace who you are. Absolutely embrace your differences, because those ultimately are embedded advantages to who you are and make you stand out from the rest of the crowd. So that’s my philosophy now.

OHT: Do you or your family have any traditions that are especially important to you?

Leung: I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a tradition, but in the Chinese culture, food is really important. Food is what brings people together. It’s a sign of respect, and that is the ultimate unifying language in a way. So when we do get together as a family, it’s really important for us to get together around a meal, because that’s when we share our stories. That’s when we connect with one another.

OHT: You might have just answered my next question, but I want to ask: What brings you joy about your heritage and culture?

Leung: It’s funny, I was actually at a conference last week and you were supposed to find someone you didn’t know in the conference and share a secret talent that you have. I shared that I can eat a lot more than most people think. Food is a really important part of our culture and in my upbringing and family.

OHT: Lastly, I wanted to ask, as we’ve seen an increase in hate-filled actions toward the AAPI community, what does supporting the AAPI community look like for you?

Leung: Well, I think kind of going back to my other answer, it’s just about embracing who you are and embracing your differences. I think part of it is being unafraid of it at the same time, which I know is really difficult. But if you’re going to truly embrace it, and then you can’t be afraid about embracing it at the same time.

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Pajaree Anannarukarn of Thailand tees off on the eleventh hole during Day One of the HSBC Women's World Championship.
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The Statue of Liberty is the backdrop for this week’s inaugural Mizuho Americas Open at Liberty National Golf Club in Jersey City, New Jersey. The tournament boasts a theme of mentorship and education, and includes a girls’ 72-hole, modified Stableford tournament featuring 24 juniors to go along with the 72-hole stroke-play event for 120 LPGA professionals.

The field is led by seven of the top 10 players on the Rolex Rankings including world No. 1 Jin Young Ko, No. 3 Lydia Ko, No. 4 Lilia Vu and No. 5 Minjee Lee. Also teeing it up this week are the finalists from Sunday’s Bank of Hope LPGA Match-Play, where Thailand’s Pajaree Anannarukarn captured her second LPGA title with a 3-and-1 victory over Japan’s Ayaka Furue.

Michelle Wie West is serving as the tournament host, and she’ll be on hand to welcome fellow Stanford alum Rose Zhang, who’s fresh off her second straight NCAA individual title and turned professional just last week. Zhang will have her first go at an LPGA prize purse, which tops out at $2.75 million this week with the winner taking home $412,500.

How to watch the 2023 Mizuho Americas Open

You can watch the 2023 Mizuho Americas Open on Golf Channel, Peacock, and the NBC Sports app. Check out the complete TV and streaming schedule:

  • Thursday, June 1: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. ET, Golf Channel and Peacock
  • Friday, June 2: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. ET, Golf Channel and Peacock
  • Saturday, June 3: 5-8 p.m. ET, Golf Channel and Peacock
  • Sunday, June 4: 4:30-5 p.m. ET (streaming only on Peacock); 5-7:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel and Peacock

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Who’s playing in the 2023 Mizuho Americas Open?

The 120-player field features seven of the top 10 players (and 16 of the top 25 player) on the Rolex Rankings:

  • No. 1 Jin Young Ko
  • No. 3 Lydia Ko
  • No. 4 Lilia Vu
  • No. 5 Minjee Lee
  • No. 6 Atthaya Thitikul
  • No. 8 Brooke Henderson
  • No. 9 Georgia Hall

Also in the field are 2023 winners Celine Boutier (LPGA Drive On Championship), Ruoning Yin (DIO Implant LA Open) and Grace Kim (LOTTE Championship), plus several sponsor exemptions including reigning NCAA individual champion Rose Zhang and her Stanford teammate Megha Ganne. Ganne, a native of Holmdel, N.J., finished T-21 at the recent NCAAs and is playing as an amateur. Joining them as an exemption is fellow Cardinal Mariah Stackhouse, who has conditional status on tour in 2023. Monday qualifiers include tour rookie Alexa Pano and Australia’s Sarah Jane Smith.

Among the notable juniors expected to play are 2022 Augusta National Women’s Amateur winner Anna Davis, 2022 U.S. Girls’ Junior winner Yana Wilson and 2022 U.S. Junior Girls’ runnerup Gianna Clemente. The 24 junior players were invited through their standings in the Rolex AJGA Rankings.

What’s the format for the Mizuho Americas Open?

The professionals will play a 72-hole stroke-play competition, with a cut to the top 50 and ties after 36 holes. The 24 juniors will play a 72-hole, no-cut competition using the modified Stableford scoring format and a different yardage than the pros.

During the first two rounds, the AJGA players will all be paired together. During the final two rounds, one junior player will play with two LPGA pros with groupings based on scores. This unique format marks the first time the AJGA and LPGA have partnered to showcase junior and professional competitors playing together.

Stableford scoring refresher: “Stableford” is a scoring system that awards points for the number of strokes taken on each hole in relation to par, rather than simply counting strokes like in stroke play. Unlike in stroke play, where players want the lowest score, the goal in Stableford scoring is to have the highest score. Standard Stableford points values are:

  • 0 Points – Double bogey or worse (two strokes or more over par)
  • 1 Point – Bogey (one stroke over par)
  • 2 Points – Par
  • 3 Points – Birdie (one stroke under par)
  • 4 Points – Eagle (two strokes under par)
  • 5 Points – Albatross or double eagle (three strokes under par)
  • 6 Points – Condor (four strokes under par)

More about Liberty National Golf Club

Located on the shore of the Upper Bay of New York Harbor, Liberty National Golf Club was designed by Bob Cupp and Tom Kite and officially opened on July 4, 2006. After the course received mixed reviews following the PGA Tour’s Northern Trust in 2009, the course underwent a renovation led by Steve Wenzloff of PGA Tour Design Services. Of note, the course hosted an event during the PGA Tour Playoffs four times (2009, 2013, 2019 and 2021) as well as the 2017 Presidents Cup, where the U.S. defeated the Internationals 19-11 for the Americans’ seventh consecutive victory in the competition and its 10th straight win overall. For this week’s event, the course will play to a par of 72 with an unofficial scorecard yardage of 6,671 yards.

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