U.S. women’s sled hockey team wins historic World Challenge, major step in para hockey growth

Sled hockey players from the U.S. and Canada compete in the gold medal game at the 2022 Women's World Challenge
International Paralympic Committee

A historic para ice hockey competition came to a close on Sunday in Green Bay, Wisconsin, with the U.S. women’s sled hockey team defeating Canada 5-1 to win the first ever Women’s World Challenge.

“It’s probably the greatest feeling in the world right now. It’s as if we won the Stanley Cup,” said U.S. captain Erica McKee.

The Americans were led in the final by Katie Ladlie, who scored two goals in the first four minutes of the game, plus another two tallies from Catherine Faherty and one from Lera Doederlein. U.S. goalie Hope Bevilhymer made three saves, while Tracey Arnold recorded 15 stops in net for the Canadians.

But the gold medal isn’t the only victory U.S. players are celebrating. Their long term goal is to see women’s para hockey added to the Paralympics, and this weekend’s World Challenge was a significant move towards achieving that goal.

“This is step one. It’s only going to continue to grow from here,” said U.S. alternate captain Sarah Bettencourt.

Para ice hockey (also known as sled hockey or sledge hockey) is technically a mixed gender sport on the Paralympic stage, but some athletes believe that co-ed label is currently doing more harm than good. Since para hockey debuted at the 1994 Winter Games, only three women have competed in the sport at the Paralympics.

The sport 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,” Peggy Assinck, a member of the Canadian women’s team since it formed in 2007, told On Her Turf in March.

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

The U.S. women’s sled hockey team was founded in 2007 after McKee was told she wasn’t allowed to make the U.S. national team because she was a woman. That year, the U.S. and Canada competed in the first ever women’s sled hockey game. In 2018, the U.S. women’s team moved under the umbrella of USA Hockey and was rebranded as a developmental team, while the Canadian women’s team continues to operate separately from Hockey Canada.

While the U.S. and Canada have led the way, what’s now holding women’s sled hockey back is that other nations haven’t kept up. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation that many women’s sports have experienced.

“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,” said Assinck.

Adding women’s sled hockey to the Paralympic program would help even out the gender balance at the Winter Games. Of the 564 Paralympians who competed this March in Beijing across all sports, only 138 (24%) were women.

Maddy Eberhard (USA) and Alanna Mah (Canada) take a face off. (Photo: International Paralympic Committee)

Four women’s para hockey teams competed in Green Bay: the United States, Canada, Great Britain (a team started by Assinck), and Team World (composed of players from seven different nations). The event was sponsored by Citi as part of a new IPC initiative that aims to bridge the gap between grassroots and high performance programs.

“We’re really thankful for all they did to put this together,” said Bettencourt. “To be out there with all these players from around the world, it was amazing.”

Looking to the future, players want to make sure the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) continues to hold the Women’s World Challenge annually.

“Sometimes, throughout the years, it was hard to get motivated and have hope in things,” said U.S. alternate captain Kelsey DiClaudio. “To have it annually would do incredible things, not just for our team, but for everyone else around the world and especially the little girls that are watching this.”

“Other nations will see that this is a sport. This will be in the Paralympics. So get ready,” said Bettencourt, holding up her gold medal and adding, “Come try to take this away from us… That is the challenge. We challenge all those nations out there: C’mon, bring it.”

The U.S. women’s sled hockey team celebrates winning gold at the 2022 Women’s World Challenge in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo: International Paralympic Committee)

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

Thanks to Nicole Haase for providing video from the mixed zone in Green Bay.

Justine Wong-Orantes’ atypical path to becoming one of the best liberos in the world

Justine Wong-Orantes hits the ball in the women's semi-final volleyball match between USA and Serbia during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
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It’s been 20 years since the same nation held both the Olympic and world volleyball titles at the same time, but libero Justine Wong-Orantes is looking to help lead Team USA accomplish that very feat at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships in the Netherlands and Poland. Competition began on Friday and the U.S. is currently 2-0 after group play wins against Kazakhstan and Canada.

“We’re trying to win, for sure,” Wong-Orantes told On Her Turf. “I think, especially with the new turn of the program and the new year of the quad, we just have a really nice blend of veterans and also newcomers on the team.”

The 14-woman roster for Team USA, which is ranked No. 1 in the world and won its first Olympic title last summer, features six players from that gold-medal-winning team. And while Wong-Orantes is among the 2021 U.S. Olympic team veterans, she’s still a relative newcomer to international play.

The Southern California native enjoyed a notable junior career – she was 12 when she became the youngest female to ever earn an AAA rating in beach volleyball – and was a standout collegian at Nebraska, where she was a member of the 2015 NCAA championship team. But Wong-Orantes followed a different path upon graduation, initially choosing not to go overseas to play professionally.

While she was first selected for the U.S. national team in 2016 and played a handful of international tournaments in the following years, it wasn’t until she started playing professionally in Germany in 2019 that she saw the potential to elevate her position on the roster. In particular, the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics gave her an additional year of overseas experience, which she calls “a blessing in disguise.”

“I just felt like I was still in that developmental stage,” she said. “And a whole year postponement allowed me to go overseas and really get all the touches, all the repetitions, and just kind of expose myself to international volleyball another year. So I was, in hindsight, pretty thankful for that COVID season because I got an extra year under my belt, and I think that just gave me a ton of confidence.”

Ahead of the Olympics, Wong-Orantes earned “best libero” honors at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball National League in Rimini, Italy, which helped secure her spot on the Olympic roster. In Tokyo, she followed up with another standout performance and was named best libero of the Olympic tournament.

As to how the Wong-Orantes transformed into one of the world’s top liberos, she points to her background as a beach volleyball player. She began competing at age 8, and her first partner was Sara Hughes, a star on the AVP Pro Tour who also won two NCAA titles with USC.

“I think having that background and just the court awareness that beach volleyball forces you to have allowed me to really have a good read on the game,” said Wong-Orantes. “I think that’s what makes a great libero is just reading and always being reactive towards the ball.”

Wong-Orantes also credits the assistance of mental coach Sue Enquist, a former UCLA softball coach and U.S. national team coach, who now helps teams work on their culture and relationships. Enquist began working with the U.S. volleyball team during the pandemic and has continued in her role ever since.

“We just worked on a lot of stuff within ourselves, within our program, how to communicate with each other off the court, and I think that honestly propelled us into such a high, high level with how we worked with each other, and then that transferred onto the court,” explained Wong-Orantes, who noted the team has Enquist on speed dial while at the World Championship. “I really commend Sue. I just really give a lot of praise to her because I think our culture was never bad, but I think [she] just transformed into a different level.”

2022-09-26 - FIVB Volleyball Womens World Championship 2022 - Day 4
ARNHEM, NETHERLANDS – Justine Wong-Orantes (far right) poses for a photo with her U.S. teammates after defeating Canada at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship on September 26, 2022. (Photo by Rene Nijhuis/Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Wong-Orantes said she and her U.S. teammates are on their toes for the world championships, which features twice as many teams (24) as the Olympics and a “more grueling” format.

“It’s going to be a long tournament, and I think we’re really going to need all 14 of us that are here. I’m pretty certain that, at any given moment, someone’s going to be called on and someone’s going to need to step up in big moments.”

2022 Ascendant LPGA: How to watch, who’s playing in Texas’s annual signature event

Atthaya Thitikul of Thailand hits her second shot on the 16th hole during the final round of the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.
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The LPGA make its annual stop in The Colony, Texas, this week for the 10th edition of the Ascendant LPGA benefiting Volunteers of America, where Thailand’s 19-year-old rookie Atthaya Thitikul comes in hot off her second career win and second playoff victory this season at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.

Leading the 132-player field at Old American Golf Club, located at Golf Clubs at The Tribute, are Texas residents and past champions Cheyenne Knight and Angela Stanford. They’ll compete for the $1.7 million prize purse alongside major champions Nelly KordaLydia Ko and Brooke Henderson. Last year’s Ascendant LPGA champion, world No. 1 Jin Young Ko, will not be defending her title after announcing earlier this month she would be missing several weeks due to a nagging wrist injury.

This past weekend in Arkansas, Thitikul took the lead with a 10-under 61 in the second round and shot 68 in the final round to finish regulation tied with Danielle Kang at 17-under 196. Thitikul, who won the JTBC Classic in March in a two-hole playoff vs. Nanna Koerstz Madsen, drained an 8-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole to secure the win over Kang.

How to watch the 2022 Ascendant LPGA 

Coverage of the 2022 Ascendant LPGA from Old American Golf Club in The Colony, Texas, can be found on Golf Channel, with streaming options available any time on any mobile device and online through NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

  • Thursday, Sept. 29: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Friday, Sept. 30: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Saturday, Oct. 1: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Sunday, Oct. 2: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel

Who’s playing in the 2022 Ascendant LPGA

Six of the top 10 players in the Rolex World Rankings are among the field in Texas, including:

  • No. 2 Nelly Korda
  • No. 4 Lydia Ko
  • No. 5 Atthaya Thitikul
  • No. 6 Brooke Henderson
  • No. 7 Lexi Thompson
  • No. 10 Nasa Hataoka

A number of local Texans also are in the tournament, headlined by past champions, Angela Stanford (2020) and Cheyenne Knight (2019), and two junior champions of the Volunteers of America Classic Girls Championship, who are playing on a sponsor exemption: Yunxuan (Michelle) Zhang (2022), a freshman at SMU, and Avery Zweig (2021), a high school sophomore from McKinney, Texas.

Past five champions of The Ascendant LPGA

2021 Jin Young Ko (South Korea) 16-under 268 1 stroke Matilda Castren
2020 Angela Stanford (USA) 7-under 277 2 strokes So Yeon Ryu, Inbee Park, Yealimi Noh
2019 Cheyenne Knight (USA) 18-under 266 2 strokes Brittany Altomare, Jaye Marie Green
2018 Sung Hyun Park (South Korea) 11-under 131 1 stroke Lindy Duncan
2017 Haru Nomura (Japan) 3-under 281 Playoff Christie Kerr

Last time at The Ascendant LPGA

South Korea’s Jin Young Ko carded a final-round 69 to maintain her 54-hole lead at Old American Golf Club and held on for a one stroke win at the 2021 Volunteers of America Classic, her eighth career LPGA tour title. Ko finished regulation at 16-under 268, edging Finland’s Matilda Castren by one stroke.

It kicked off a five-win season for Ko, who had just lost her No. 1 ranking to Nelly Korda the week prior after holding the top spot for 100 straight weeks. She regained the No. 1 ranking back in October 2021, after earning her fourth win in seven starts at the BMW Ladies Championship.

More about Old American Golf Club

Opened in 2010, the Old American Golf Club is one of two clubs at The Tribute, a lakefront resort community on Lewisville Lake in The Colony, Texas. Designed by Tripp Davis and 12-time PGA Tour winner Justin Leonard, Old American plays as a Par 71 and stretches to 6,475 yards on the tournament scorecard.