Blades of Glory: Amanda Kessel
The gold medal-winning star of the US women’s hockey team on becoming an instant celebrity, making her brothers cry, and why she hides her ponytail for games.
Photographs by Chad Griffith
Styling by Marisa Ellison
Hair and Makeup by Rieko Shiba
Most Olympic athletes get to compete in their event, and then they can relax. As a hockey player, what is it like to have to be focused for the full two weeks of the Games, while everyone else is having fun?
We were there 10 days before our first game, just to get acclimated to everything. The 16-hour time difference was a killer. You have to lock in right away. It’s so hard with so many other things trying to draw your attention. You want to go see all of these different events, and meet all these people, but you can’t have your focus elsewhere. We worked on that mental preparation for a long time.
How do you work on that?
We spend a lot of time visualizing, using mental imagery, thinking about ourselves in different situations. It’s also about teammates keeping each other accountable.
What did you do to acclimatize yourselves?
When you spend 27 days in a different country, it can be disorienting. But they did a great job with everything. The beds were actually pretty uncomfortable, so we all got these mattress toppers. I also had this Build-a-Bear that I’ve had for 10 years that made its way over to South Korea with me. I brought my Polaroid camera. I wanted to get a picture of me and my roommates every single day. We would put the self-timer on and capture ourselves every day.
You spend four years getting ready for this, you get to the gold medal game against Canada, you play the game, and then it’s tied at the end of regulation. What goes through your mind?
We were right back to where we were four years before. When the final horn went off, I was like, “We’ve got this.” For some reason, I was super confident. We started off the game not playing our best hockey. By midway through the second period, I thought we were playing pretty well. The locker room energy was great.
When the final puck goes in during the shootout, do you feel relief or joy?
It was just pure happiness. It’s a lifetime work that you put in, and then you achieve your dream in a second. You’re getting off the bench as fast as you can.
You talk about this being a lifetime of work to achieve this dream. What’s been the most difficult obstacle for you?
I went through a really bad concussion, and didn’t play hockey for two years. You have all of this self doubt. For a year, I wanted to believe I’d get back, but didn’t really think I would. I couldn’t even go out to dinner with friends, let alone play hockey. It was really depressing.
The physical issues of concussions are hard enough, but the mental part must be even worse. If you break a bone, there is a timeline to get back. With concussions, there are no finish line.
It was scary. I got to the point that I just wanted to be a normal person. I wanted to finish school. Even just to go to Starbucks and sit there. I couldn’t enjoy daily life things.
When did it turn around for you?
When I started getting back into more activity. I had to fight back and be mentally strong. I started doubting myself and thinking about myself negatively. It took a complete mentality shift.
What has it been like since you won the gold medal?
None of us can believe the support or attention we’ve received. We almost laugh about it. People think we’re cool, but we’re really not that cool! My social media probably jumped about 10,000 followers. It was humbling to see how much support we got.
Do you have young girls reaching out to you now through social media?
One of the best parts about what we do, winning these gold medals, is that we have a platform to inspire those younger generations. You work your whole life to achieve your dreams, you win with your teammates, now what are you going to do with that? One of my teammates told me the best advice she ever got was to share your medal with everyone. I thought that was really cool. My medal from Sochi is in a bank vault right now. What good does that do? I want to share it with everyone and inspire people.
Young female hockey players may have it harder than any other athlete. There are a lot more places to play soccer or figure skate, or do gymnastics. Did you play on a girl’s team, or did you have to play with boys?
I grew up playing boys hockey until high school. I was lucky. The boys on my team were super supportive. The boys I was playing against were not. if they saw me with a ponytail, they were definitely going after me a little extra. Parents from my team would fight with parents from other teams for swearing at me on the ice. I was just a little girl. Multiple times, there were fights.
Would you try to disguise yourself as a boy?
I would. I’d wear my hair on top of my head so my ponytail wouldn’t stick out. I still do it; I’m the only person on the team that does it now, and I guess I just haven’t changed that since I was a little girl. I did that because I was playing with boys.
What sort of things did you get to do when you got home?
We did the Ellen show. We had no clue that we were going on a show. Later that night, we’re going to LA Kings game, and meeting all these super famous people. It’s not a lifestyle we are used to. We met Jimmy Kimmel. When we went to the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, Meghan Trainor was there. She was one of the coolest people I’ve ever met, so down to earth.
What is it going to be like when the Olympic excitement dies down and it’s back to life as a pro women’s hockey player?
It’s a grind. We’re playing purely for our love of the game. You’re not making a living off of playing. Fortunately, it’s finally starting to take a turn. We went through a huge battle for equality with USA Hockey, the governing body. Hopefully, it will be better.
As far as the NWHL goes, the league has been somewhat fragile. You are all such pioneers in this league. You brought it into existence. Do you feel pressure to keep it going for the next generation?
I wouldn’t say that I feel pressure from it. But we definitely want to do everything we can so the people in the future have it better than we do. We want to continually see that growth. This year, one of my idols, Cammi Granato, came to talk to our team. She told us stories about her and her teammates—it was way different than what we had now. It made us realized that it is getting better.
What’s a day in the life like?
For the professional teams, 90% of the women on the team have a second job. They’re working from 9 a.m.-7 p.m., then coming to the rink at 8 p.m. for practice a few times a week and on the weekend. They’re using their off days at work so they can play in our games. It’s a huge sacrifice.
It has to be hard when you are not earning a living.
It’s definitely a scramble. A lot of people on our team went through tougher times. One girl on our team ran out of money for a train ticket. She was using her Dunkin’ Donuts cards to eat. We helped her out, but you get the idea.
You come from a pretty athletic family. Did that help you prepare for life as a pro athlete?
My dad was a professional football player. My brother, Phil, plays in the NHL (for the Pittsburgh Penguins), and my brother, Blake, also plays pro hockey. My parents were instrumental in all of this. They gave us some good genes, but their mentality was instilled in us. We just could not lose (laughs). We had that competitive natures. I’ve had it since I was three or four years old.
Did you all play hockey together for fun
It was never just for fun (laughs). Somebody was crying after every single game. My mom would be screaming her head off that we’re not allowed to play with each other anymore. She would ban us from playing video games because we’d fight so much.
What would you play?
We played a lot of mini-sticks in our garage. We were really lucky that our family were part owners of an ice rink, so we could pretty much skate whenever we want. When I got to a certain age, I was allowed to play in my brothers’ pro games, and those were the best times ever, going out there with pro guys and college players. It helped me tremendously.
What’s next for you?
I have a very entrepreneurial mindset. Right now, I’m working with Gongshow Gear, a hockey lifestyle apparel company, and I’ll be coming out with my own clothing line in the US. I’m also going to continue playing. I hope to play in the NWHL next year. I also run camps in the summer and that helps me out. I’ll be looking for some part time work, so I can get some experience and make a little money, so I can put more money in my training. I hope to play in 2022 with Team USA in Beijing. Especially after winning, it makes me want to win again!