San Diego sled star Bettencourt honored with USA Hockey award
Sled hockey is much more than a game for San Diego resident Sarah Bettencourt.
“There are many stories of how playing sled hockey changed lives,” she said. “I found sled hockey at a very crucial time of my life and it did more than change my life. It saved it.”
A rare neurological disorder that first afflicted her in 2008 while she was in the U.S. Marine Corps forced Bettencourt to medically retire from the Marines as a captain in 2012 with 100 percent disability.
“I went from serving our country and making a difference in the world to nothing,” the Maryland native said. “I lost my independence, mobility, place in society, passion and Marine Corps family and I had no idea how to get back in the world.”
Then she played sled hockey in early 2014 at an adaptive sports winter camp. She discovered the full-contact sport satisfied her physical, social and competitive needs.
“While I was on the ice, I was no longer disabled – I was a hockey player,” she said.
But not just a hockey player. She was a hockey player with a mission. There was no local sled hockey team in her area so she founded the San Diego Ducks sled hockey club, supported by the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks, and later became a member of the U.S. women’s sled hockey team.
She serves as the Ducks’ director, manager and team captain, drawing on the leadership, communication and perseverance she learned in the Marines to guide the team with high standards and a long-term vision for both the club and disabled hockey.
“I’m once again able to serve our society through the San Diego Ducks and represent our country through the U.S. team,” she said.
She’s also helped organize the Pacific Sled Hockey League and created a sled hockey division within the Anaheim Ducks High School Hockey League. She’s hosted numerous sled hockey clinics and speaks to organizations about disabled hockey.
“My perspective changes as I look back and see things I wasn’t able to see a year or two ago,” Bettencourt said. “Now I’m able to find humor in the events that caused me the most pain, lessons in the circumstances I thought were meaningless, and relationships in the experiences I thought were individual.”
Bettencourt wants to establish standing/amputee and blind/visually impaired hockey programs and high school and collegiate disabled hockey leagues.
Her tireless efforts on behalf of disabled hockey haven’t gone unnoticed. Bettencourt was named USA Hockey’s 2016 Disabled Athlete of the Year and was honored last month at the organization’s Night of Tribute Awards Dinner, a highlight of the organization’s Annual Congress in Colorado Springs, Colo.
It was quite a night for the new mother. She and her husband, Matt Bettencourt, her high school sweetheart who is now a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy Reserves, have a son Tyler who turned one on July 12.
Sarah Bettencourt’s neurological disorder hasn’t been diagnosed. The current working diagnosis, she said, is cerebral inflammatory disorder.
“Essentially, I have lesions of inflammation in my brain,” she explained. “They cause the part of my body that part of the brain controls to stop working properly.”
Her permanent symptoms are sensation loss and weakness in her hands and feet, loss of balance and constant vertigo, and coordination loss. Her transient symptoms can affect any part of her body and range from vision loss to partial paralysis to loss of conscientious or seizures.
Dealing with all these symptoms has a silver lining, believe it or not.
“I have a unique perspective because I’ve experienced several types of disabilities, even if only for a short period of time,” she said. “That has allowed me to connect with a lot of people.”
There’s one another dose of good medical news.
“Thankfully, my transient symptoms have been in remission since I became pregnant and now breastfeeding my son.”
– Steve Stein