No Limits

Despite Her Physical Challenges, Sarah Chung Pushes Forward On The Ice And In Life
By: 
Brian Lester

No obstacle is ever too large to overcome if you are willing to put forth the effort to leap over it.

It may mean getting knocked down a few times along the way. But, ultimately, the impossible is possible as long as you are willing to pick yourself up and keep pushing forward.

It's a trait that every hockey player demonstrates every time he or she steps on the ice. Just ask Sarah Chung.

The fact that she is a hockey player may not seem like a big deal - until you discover that she is also legally blind.

Like most Chicagoans, Chung loves watching hockey on television, especially her beloved Blackhawks. But she never considered playing hockey until a friend mentioned there was a way for her to get in the game. Being the competitive athlete that she is, Chung gave it a shot, landing a spot on a blind hockey team run by the Blackhawks.

"It was an exhilarating experience," she said while recalling her first time stepping on the ice.

Blind hockey is a relatively new sport in the United States. At the first blind ice hockey summit in 2014 there were only two Americans with experience in a sport that got its start in Canada. That has dramatically changed over the last couple of years, thanks in large part to the support of organizations like the Blackhawks. The popularity of the sport in the States is rising, with the third annual summit in Chicago in late October featuring representatives from at least five teams.

Mike Svac, the hockey director and head coach for the Chicago-based team, is impressed with how fast the game has grown.

"These individuals go through a life with limited or no vision, but when they step onto the ice, there is no disability. They become a hockey player," Svac said. "It's a great feeling for me and the coaches knowing that they have an opportunity to experience the game just like everyone else."

It should surprise no one that Chung has adapted quickly to the sport. She is, after all, a fierce competitior whose athletic talent reaches far beyond the ice.

This summer, Chung was in Rio de Janerio for the 2016 Paralympic Summer Games, representing the United States in judo. While she didn't medal, it really didn't matter.

"It was literally a dream come true to be there," she said. "I never thought in my life I would accomplish something like that. To be at an event with the best athletes in the world is an amazing feeling."

Even more amazing, Chung didn't get into the sport until three years ago. While her hard work and dedication earned her a trip to the Paralympics, she credits others with helping her along on the road to Rio.

"When I started out I wasn't sure if chasing the [Paralympic] dream was a reality, but to get as far as I did is a great accomplishment, and I'm thankful for everyone who helped me get there," Chung said. And now that she's done it once, she would love the chance to compete in Tokyo in 2020.

Although judo and hockey share little in common, Chung has seen the impact one sport can have on the other, particularly from the mental standpoint.

"I think the mental toughness carries over to hockey," Chung said. "You also have to have great balance in judo and that has helped me out a lot in hockey."

While she admits there is still room for improvement on the ice, especially with her puck handling skills, she loves being a part of a team.

As any athlete knows, hockey isn't an easy sport to play, but Chung is blessed with coaches who are willing to take the time to teach her the finer points of the game.

"I appreciate the patience the coaches have with us, that they are willing to work with us and give us a chance to experience hockey," Chung said. "I appreciate it very much."

Her biggest fear, she said, has nothing to do with crashing into the boards. "My biggest fear is hitting someone else," she said.

Fear, though, is something she has always managed to overcome. Take, for instance, the battle she faced a year ago that almost scuttled her Paralympic dreams.

At a judo workshop last September, Chung shattered her right humerus. The pain, she recalled, was unlike any other she has ever experienced.

The devastating injury came on the heels of suffering a mild concussion at the Para Pan Am Games. At one point she considered throwing in the towel. In the end, she kept striving to reach Rio.

"Physically, it was very tough to get through, but it was even tougher on me mentally," Chung said. "Getting over the fear of getting hurt again was difficult for me. I went to see a sports psychologist and got through it."

Interestingly enough, Chung is pursuing a graduate degree in sports and health psychology at Adler University in Chicago. It seems like the perfect career path as she looks to inspire others to overcome challenges the same way she has always done, and as she continues to do.

Shortly after joining her fellow Paralympians at the White House in September, Chung ran the Chicago Marathon in October.

And as if her schedule isn't busy enough, she is back on the ice for another year of hockey. Who knows, if blind hockey ever becomes a Paralympic sport, Chung said she would love to suit up for the United States.

It all goes back to the idea of proving that anything is possible as long as you are willing to work hard enough to achieve it.

"I have no choice to get back up off the ice if I fall and I have no choice but to compete again if I lose a match in judo," Chung said.

"I want to succeed as badly as anyone and I will work as hard as I can to do it. I might question myself once in a while. Everyone does. I'm glad I don't give up on something just because it's hard."

 

Brian Lester is a freelance writer based in Pensacola, Fla.

 

Issue: 
2017-03

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