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Hanna Hughes: Team USA

Hanna Hughes: Team USA

Hanna Hughes was starting her first day of classes at the University of Minnesota Duluth when she was approached by another student: “Have you ever thought about playing hockey?”

At first, she didn’t know how to respond.

“I thought he was kidding — because we were both sitting in there in wheelchairs waiting for the elevator,” recalls Hughes. “I was like, ‘why are you asking me this?’ ”

The sport turned out to be sled hockey, and within a week Hanna was on the ice giving it a go. 

“And I wasn’t terrible at first — surprisingly.”

Hughes soon fell in love with the game and began competing on a more serious level, first with the Minnesota Wild club team and now for the national team. This fall, she was one of 15 players selected to the USA Women’s Sled Hockey squad, making it the second consecutive year she has earned a spot alongside the sport’s best female athletes in the country.

It was a remarkable achievement for Hughes, considering not long ago she thought her days playing sports were over for good.

Not something 'you can ever see coming'

Hughes was in her sophomore year at Lourdes High School when she began to feel some unexpected pain in her hip.

An avid soccer player, who had her sights set on one day playing ball in college, Hughes attributed the pain to a normal sports injury. But after multiple sessions of physical therapy with no results, Hughes' family knew it was time to go in for an MRI.

“Instead of being in there for an hour, I was in there for three,” recalls Hughes. 

What doctors discovered would alter her life forever.

“They found a grapefruit size tumor on my hip.”

A biopsy showed it was a type of bone cancer known as osteosarcoma. Days later, she was undergoing chemotherapy.

“Because it was such an aggressive form of cancer," she says, "they really had to start treatment right away.”

In the weeks to come, Hughes would go through 10 rounds of chemo — requiring hospital stays of four to five days at a time.

Several months into treatment, with Hughes losing hair and weight, the results were mixed. While the chemo had kept the cancer from spreading, it was not able to shrink the tumor.
Hughes recalls getting the news from her medical team: “The best option was to amputate my leg, and my hip, and half my pelvis.”

“It was crazy,” she adds. “Because you know, I was 16. I was active. I had been healthy my whole life. So, I don’t think it’s something you can ever see coming.”

Winners never quit

Famed football coach Vince Lombardi once said, “It's not whether you get knocked down, it's whether you get up.”

Hughes had been knocked down, and bruised, and faced with a set of challenges many of us will never experience. 

She had also been given a second shot at life — and she wasn’t about to take it for granted.

“I just think it makes you appreciate life a lot more,” she said of her battle with cancer.

Now 23, Hughes spends her days helping the hungry through her position at Channel One Regional Food Bank in Rochester. Once off the clock, she trains at Olmsted Medical Center — preparing her body for the next time she puts on the Team USA jersey.

"I definitely think there is a misconception about athletic ability and physical fitness of a lot of disabled people,” she explains. “I think people just expect us to sit at home and not be involved with a lot of different things. But that’s totally not the case, especially with me.”

“I think when people see us playing hockey, they see that we’re playing the sport the same way abled-body people do.”

Sights on Beijing

This past winter, Hughes traveled to Norway with the USA sled team. The women took first place in a competition against Teams Canada and Europe. 

Hughes, who plays defense, says the team was hoping to participate in this year’s Paralympics in Pyeongchang; however, there were not enough teams to enter the competition. 

Disappointed? Sure, Hughes says. But she remains hopeful there will be enough teams to quality for the 2022 Games in Beijing. 

“It definitely gets more competitive as the sport continues to grow, and more women get involved in it,” she says.

In the meantime, her team will continue to play NHL club teams, just like the one she played on with the Wild organization. That means playing against teams of mostly men.

Some might consider that a challenge.

For Hughes, it’s game on.

“We definitely keep up with the boys — and actually, probably beat them most of the time.”

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Photography by M Brandt Photography

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