Plum’s DiClaudio refuses to let disability hold her back |
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Plum’s Kelsey DiClaudio, left, mixes it up in a game with her Mighty Penguins sled hockey team.

Pittsburgher Dan McCoy gained national fame earlier this year as a member of the gold medal-winning United States sled hockey team at the 2014 Paralympic Games in Russia.

Plum has a rising sled hockey star of its own, and she may someday bring home her own gold medal.

Kelsey DiClaudio, a junior at Plum, is one of the country’s top female sled hockey players and a member of the U.S. national women’s team.

She’s hoping, like her good friend, McCoy, to one day represent her country in the Paralympic Games.

“Women’s sled hockey is not considered a Paralympic sport yet, but we’re building up to it and developing more teams throughout the world,” DiClaudio said.

“In 2018, we’re going to the Paralympic Games as an exhibition sport, and hopefully by the next Paralympics (2022) we’ll be a medaling sport.”

DiClaudio can win a medal this week when she travels with the U.S. team to Ontario, Canada, for the first International Paralympic Committee�Ice Sledge Hockey Women’s International Championships.

The tournament, which will be Friday through Sunday, includes teams from the U.S., Canada and Europe.

Just more than a year ago, DiClaudio showcased her abilities as a high-scoring center against international competition. In September of 2013, the U.S. swept four games against a European team in Honefoss, Norway, as DiClaudio led all scorers with nine goals and four assists.

Sled hockey, or sledge hockey, as it’s known around the world, was developed in Europe in the 1960s but didn’t reach the United States until 1990. It is played with standard ice hockey rules, but players use two smaller sticks and sit in sleds that ride on a double-blade. The sticks have metal picks on the butt end that players use to propel and push them on the ice.

Men’s sled hockey became a Paralympic sport at the 1994 Lillehammer Games, and the U.S. has won gold medals in 2002, ’10 and ’14.

The women’s game has grown slowly but has seen a steady increase in participation.

“To be pioneers of this sport and grow it more for female athletes and disabled people in general is just amazing,” DiClaudio said.

DiClaudio lives with a condition called tethered cord syndrome, a neurological disorder related to malfunctions of the spinal cord. She has endured five surgeries — called tethered cord releases — to relieve pain in her back.

Complications from the last of those operations, performed two years ago, led to her becoming paraplegic and being confined to a wheelchair.

“There was a 50-50 chance I would not be able to walk again, and I knew that going in,” she said. “I told them as long as I can still play sled hockey, I’m fine.”

The condition did not affect Kelsey’s twin sister, Josie, who runs track and cross country at Plum.

Kelsey got started in sled hockey when she was in second grade. An older friend who worked with the Pittsburgh Mighty Penguins, a Pittsburgh-based sled hockey club, told Kelsey’s mother, Karian, about it.

“We figured we should go down and try it,” Kelsey said. “They loaned me a sled and a bunch of gear. I tried it, and I just fell in love with it, and I’ve been with them ever since.”

DiClaudio, 17, is the only female on the Mighty Penguins, where McCoy is a teammate.

“I’ve known Dan since I was little. He’s just an amazing player, and he’s taught me so much,” she said. “I wouldn’t be the player I am today without him.”

Playing with and against men is nothing new for DiClaudio, who recently became only the second woman ever to win a spot on the U.S. men’s national development team.

Players will be selected from that group to form the U.S. men’s team for the 2018 Paralympic Games.

“I’ve tried out before, and I’ve been working really hard,” DiClaudio said. “It was definitely a big goal of mine, and I was really excited and honored when they called me and said I made it.”

DiClaudio has played against men regularly with the Mighty Penguins and as a member of the U.S. women’s national team for the past four years.

“We play a lot of local men’s teams throughout the United States because there are no women’s teams,” she said.

DiClaudio’s growing reputation as a sled hockey player earned her an invitation to the 35th annual Salute to Women in Sports event in New York City in October.

There she got to rub shoulders with the likes of Billie Jean King and Michelle Kwan and also got a chance to meet players from the U.S. women’s national ice hockey team — Hilary Knight, Julie Chu and Angela Ruggiero.

“I thought it was a great opportunity and an incredible honor,” DiClaudio said.

DiClaudio says another incredible honor has been donning the red, white and blue and representing her country. She may have a chance to do it for the U.S. men and women in upcoming Paralympic Games.

“When I first started, sled hockey was so much fun, then I started to get a little better, and I thought maybe one day I could get to that level and get to the Paralympics,” she said. “I saw the 2010 Paralympics in Vancouver, and it opened doors, and I said, ‘That’s what I want to do now. That’s my goal.’ ”

Dave Schrecengost is a freelance writer.

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