From a boardroom in the land of make believe to the harsh realities of the battlefield, Angela Ruggiero’s post-Olympic odyssey has taken her from one extreme to the other.
The one constant for the 28-year-old face of women’s hockey is that life has been anything but dull since the Olympic flame was extinguished two years ago.
And now, with less than 24 months until the Games return to North American soil in Vancouver, British Columbia, Ruggiero is devoting all of her time and energies preparing for what will most likely be her final kick at the Olympic can.
It’s that quest for a second Olympic gold medal (her first came in 1998) that led Ruggiero to put a promising future in the business world on hold, turning down a job offer from Donald Trump at the conclusion of her stint on the television show, “The Apprentice.”
“I had to pick one or the other: it was Trump or Team USA, and Team USA is where my heart is,” says Ruggiero, who was chosen from a panel of 12 former Olympians to appear on the reality show that awards the winner a job with one of Trump’s companies.
“I had a great time [on “The Apprentice”], made some friends and got a job offer out of it, but if I can keep playing and can go out on top, that’s what I want.”
Ruggiero knows that returning to the pinnacle of women’s hockey won’t be easy, especially with a completely different cast of characters than the ones who won gold in Nagano, Japan in 1998.
While there are no locks for the 2010 squad, the smart money has Ruggiero joining super mom Jenny Potter as the only veterans returning for a shot at their fourth Olympic medals.
“We’re the two old ladies on the team,” laughs Ruggiero. “We call ourselves old ladies but we’re really not.”
It may be proven that they’re not if the nucleus of the U.S. squad that recently won gold in the inaugural IIHF World Women’s Under-18 Championship continues to improve.
Thanks in large part to the efforts of trailblazers like Potter and Ruggiero, girls’ hockey continues to be among the fastest growing demographic of USA Hockey. But it’s a strange twist of fate that the same players who were inspired to lace up the skates by these Olympic veterans may very well be skating with them in Vancouver.
“Women don’t hit their peak physically until their late 20s or early 30s, so we have a lot of players, in my opinion, who retire prematurely to have kids or pursue a career,” says Ruggiero, who is skating with the Minnesota Whitecaps of the Western Women’s Hockey League.
“On one hand I’m like, ‘Hey guys, keep playing,’ but it’s also great that other players are getting the opportunity.”
The opportunities that hockey has presented Ruggiero since she first slipped on the USA jersey at the tender age of 16 are enough to fill a book. In fact, she did write a book, the autobiographical “Breaking the Ice,” in 2005.
In addition to skating in three Olympics, seven World Championships and two NCAA Frozen Fours, hockey has also afforded Ruggiero the opportunity to travel to Africa with the Right to Play program, make history as the first female position player to skate in a professional men’s game and join a select group of Olympic athletes on a goodwill tour of Afghanistan in January.
“It was great to be able to say thanks to all the soldiers and airmen for representing us and risking their lives over there,” Ruggiero says.
“It’s a completely different world. You’re like ‘wow, this is really happening.’ You’re not just reading about it in the paper or seeing it on TV.”
If Afghanistan was an eye-opening experience, so was her foray into the world of reality television. Ruggiero managed to hang on until the 11th week before she heard the words, “You’re fired.”
By the time the show aired, Ruggiero was preparing for the World Championships. On the night the proverbial ax fell, she was watching the show with a number of her teammates.
“They had no idea I was getting fired and they were throwing pillows at the screen and shouting ‘no,’ ” Ruggiero says. “I was thinking that it was appropriate that the day I got fired I was with my team. Having them around me for support was kind of fitting.”
When it comes to cutthroat competition, going into the corners against a Canadian opponent has nothing on entering the Trump boardroom with one person knowing he or she is going home. In an atmosphere where competitors regularly stab each other in the back to gain an advantage, teamwork is a foreign principle. But that’s what separated Ruggiero from the herd and earned her the respect of everyone involved in the show.
“I was pretty successful because I was able to utilize the skills that I learned over the course of all the years I’ve spent with the national team and playing at Harvard,” says Ruggiero, who graduated in 2004 with a degree in government.
“Thankfully I play on a team of 20, and that’s what I learned my whole life -- that you need to use everyone’s skills to be successful as a group and try to bring out the best in everyone.”
For now Ruggiero’s main interest is in bringing out the best in her USA teammates as they prepare for the 2008 IIHF World Women’s Championship in Harbin, China, and beyond. While she remains focused on the hockey challenges ahead of her, she can’t help but wonder what adventures await her down the road.
“I have a lot on my plate right now with hockey, and I’m trying to fine tune what I want to do when I’m done with the game,” she says. “It could be a number of different things. I haven’t set anything in stone yet, so we’ll see.”