WALKER VAN WEY | Reporter
Two Lindenwood graduates will be on the biggest stages in sports during the 2018 Winter Olympics and Paralympics, and they both hope to help their teammates bring home gold medals.
Representing the U.S. women’s ice hockey team is Nicole Hensley, 23, of Littleton, Colorado, who is participating in her first Olympics. Josh Pauls, 25, of Greenbrook, New Jersey, will be playing in his third Paralympics with the U.S. sled hockey team. He’ll also be vying for his third gold medal.
The Winter Olympics are scheduled to take place in Pyeongchang, South Korea, from Feb. 9 to 25. The Paralympics will follow from March 9 to 18. The hockey games will be played at two venues: the Gangneung Hockey Centre, which seats 10,000; and the Kwandong Hockey Centre, which seats 6,000.
Hensley, who was a standout goalie for Lindenwood’s women’s ice hockey team from to 2012 to 2016, said the Olympics is something she has dreamed about since she was little.
“I saw U.S. vs. China in 2002, and I never would have thought that back then, when I was getting autographs, 16 years later I would be giving out the autographs,” she said. “You can’t help but smile and be humbled.”
During her time at Lindenwood, Hensley seemingly won every award under the sun for a student-athlete and unofficially holds two records: most saves in a game with 90 and most career saves with 4,094. She appeared in 123 games as a Lion, compiling a .921 save percentage.
The U.S. women’s ice hockey team has medaled at every Olympics since the sport was included in the 1998 games. That year was the only time the team won gold. But since the last Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia in 2014, the team has won three consecutive world championships and expectations are high for the U.S. to be atop the podium in Pyeongchang.
Hensley said the team has gotten to know each other pretty well on and off the ice as they’ve trained in Tampa, and they all have similar mindsets for the games.
“I think it’s important to stay grounded and make sure everybody’s dialed in,” she said. “We have a very competitive group, and it’s not too big of a deal to put our excitement aside and focus on our goals. It’s what our jobs and our lives are about right now.”
Pauls, who played in the 2010 and 2014 Paralympics, will not only have the weight of the United States on his shoulders but at this year’s games, he will be adding the weight of his 16 teammates.
“It’s cool to be able to wear that crest again, and there’s more meaning to me because I get to be team captain this year,” Pauls said.
With multiple experienced players already on the team, Pauls said his job as captain is actually easier.
“I’m just making sure I set the expectations,” Pauls said. “Not just talking in the locker room, but in my play. That’ll trickle down to the other players on the team.”
Pauls holds several hockey records, including the most career goals (18) for Team USA in World Sled Hockey Challenge history. Pauls also is tied for most career points (32) by a U.S. player in World Sled Hockey Challenge history.
He and the team have been practicing in Chicago as they prepare for what they hope will be a three-peat for the top medal.
Lindenwood’s Vice President of Intercollegiate Athletics, Brad Wachler, said he has reached out to each athlete on social media and hopes to have a reception for each athlete should the former Lions come away with gold medals.
“We’d love to get them back here in person at some point,” Wachler said. “The honor of winning gold is something that definitely needs to be recognized.”
Hensley and the women’s ice hockey team began play against Finland on Sunday, Feb. 11.
Pauls and the Paralympic sled hockey team begin play against Japan on March 11.