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How Sarah Nurse, Canadian Hockey Star, Is Finding Her Voice

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TORONTO — Not even six years ago — before Sarah Nurse’s Olympic medals, before the Olympic record she set, before the Cheerios boxes and Barbie dolls bearing her image — Canada was content to go away her off its national women’s hockey team.

It was early 2017, and Canadian executives were skeptical that Nurse was ready for the world championship stage. Perhaps, she was told, there can be a spot at the following 12 months’s Olympics.

Nurse made that Olympic team, after which one other, and is now amongst probably the most ascendant women in hockey. Six months after she became the primary Black woman to win an Olympic gold medal in hockey and set the single-tournament Olympic points record, Nurse is central to her country’s ambitions on this planet championship competition that began Thursday.

Her turn at the highest of Canadian sports is unfolding as she is increasingly summoning her own voice. Certainly one of the few Black people in hockey’s most rarefied rooms, now or ever before, she is exchanging her yearslong caution for candor, chasing away worries about backlash and the wrenching, lingering sense that she “never really all the time felt like I slot in.”

“I used to be a woman playing hockey; I used to be a biracial Black girl playing hockey,” Nurse, 27, said in Toronto this summer. “I’ve just all the time had this weird sense of belonging where I’m like, ‘Oh, can I sit at this table? Do I belong here? Do I slot in with the entire crowd?’”

The crowds appear to follow her now. On Wednesday, EA Sports said that Nurse can be the primary woman to appear on the duvet of its hockey video game. Then on Thursday, when Canada opened its world-championship schedule with a matchup against a formidable Finnish squad, Nurse scored her team’s first goal and assisted in its second in a 4-1 victory.

Asked whether Nurse, who calls pressure “a privilege,” would have soared without Canada’s rejection in 2017, her coach from her University of Wisconsin days replied, “Probably not.”

“She probably got to the purpose where she was a significantly better player having navigated through that space than perhaps she would have been,” said the coach, the previous American Olympian Mark Johnson.

The daughter of a Trinidadian immigrant and a mother whose lineage in Canada traces for generations, Nurse is one in every of the newer entries on a family tree that could be a treasury of athletic talent.

Her father, Roger, was one in every of Canada’s finest lacrosse players. An aunt, Raquel Nurse, was a celebrated point guard at Syracuse University and married Donovan McNabb, the quarterback who made six Pro Bowls. Their daughter, Lexi McNabb, is a freshman on Syracuse’s basketball team.

Sarah Nurse’s other cousins include Kia Nurse, an Olympian in 2016 and 2020 and a W.N.B.A. all-star in between, and Darnell Nurse, a top-line defenseman for the Edmonton Oilers. Their father, Richard Nurse, played within the Canadian Football League.

As a toddler in Hamilton, near Toronto, Sarah Nurse, dazzled by graceful power and sparkly dresses, imagined that she desired to be a figure skater (or a pop star). Her parents signed her up for hockey as an alternative. She competed on boys’ teams and learned that other girls played the game only when, as a 7 12 months old, she watched Canada’s women’s team march to an Olympic gold medal in 2002.

To coaches and players, she showed conspicuous promise but sometimes seemed too relaxed. It was just once Stacey Marnoch began coaching Nurse that the prospect felt a bench boss understood her.

Preaching that no approach could fit every player, much less every teenage player, Marnoch offered a mix of independence and fearsome accountability. Perhaps most significant, Marnoch sensed that Nurse, who already prized her ability to separate her identity from the game that might make her famous, would collapse beneath a hockey-centric clamor.

“She’s fiery competitive but doesn’t have that edge to her,” Marnoch said. “She’s laid-back and super chill and turns it on and up when she must.”

“Lazy kids don’t play defense, and she or he was catching people from behind on a regular basis,” Marnoch added.

College coaches noticed Nurse’s speed, her unflappability and her ability to kill penalties. She selected Wisconsin, which was each renowned for its women’s hockey program and enormous enough for Nurse to experience relative anonymity.

She played in every game as a freshman and have become a prolific scorer for the Badgers, who reached the Frozen 4 in all 4 of Nurse’s seasons in Madison.

Off the ice, though, Nurse was wary as America sank still deeper into tumult. She nervous about police brutality, particularly when her father or one in every of her brothers would travel to go to. Because the nation’s mood darkened across the 2016 presidential election, she found herself disconcerted by among the views she heard within the locker room and saw embraced in Wisconsin, a panorama of political bitterness.

But she was hardly desperate to enter the fray fully, or no less than not yet. She had long been mindful of what she described as a bonus: “I’m a biracial woman and other people can tell that I’m not white, but I also don’t get treated as if I were a dark-skinned Black woman.” She was also uncertain that anyone desired to hear from her, and so she had said little about race, in society or in her predominantly white sport. (Nurse said she was a teen before she learned about Angela James, a Black woman who had played for Canada and in 2010 became one in every of the primary women to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.)

Even when she was amongst friends, she sometimes held back from correcting slights and dismissals. And on Twitter, she typically talked about hockey and her siblings.

The night before the election, though, after a person wearing a mask of Donald J. Trump pretended to lynch someone impersonating Barack Obama during a football game in Madison, she apprehensively joined the Wisconsin athletes who spoke of being “loved during competition but then being subjected to racial discrimination in our on a regular basis lives.”

The election results quickly drowned out their statement.

The sting of exclusion from the 2017 world championship team, traceable to misgivings about Nurse’s strength, faded once she made Canada’s roster for the 2018 Winter Games. However the team returned from Asia frustrated, with Canada relegated to the silver medal in women’s hockey for the primary time since 1998. The following 12 months, Canada would manage only the bronze on this planet championship.

The players launched into a “soul-searching” period, as a few of them would describe it. For Nurse, the calculus was complex. She had an Olympic medal and prospects for one more. She also had other interests, including fashion and marketing.

“I used to be able to understand at 23 that the Olympics were just something I did — somewhere I went, where I played hockey, which I’ve done my whole life and can proceed to do,” she said this past June. “But it surely’s not who I’m. It’s like, I’m Sarah Nurse. I’m an Olympian, but I’m also other things. It’s not my whole being.”

The agony — perhaps more of a simmering fury — from the Olympic loss to the Americans lingered, though. She wanted a gold medal.

The pandemic arrived within the interim. She stayed along with her parents, practiced hockey how she could and located solace in YouTube tutorials on nails and makeup.

Then a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd, a Black man, in May 2020. Tons of of miles to the east, Nurse, emboldened after years of admiring activists from afar, joined within the international horror.

“It was not an accident,” she said in a single tweet. “It’s appalling to see one other black person murdered. His life, together with countless others – Not valued. It’s NOT enough to take a seat back and say, ‘I’m Not Racist.’ All of us should be actively AGAINST racism in our society.”

Also troubled by elements of Canadian society, she posted about microaggressions, urged people to attend protests and at one point wrote: “Black Lives are more necessary than sports. PERIOD. I’m going to want hockey, especially, to grasp that.”

Her self-diagnosed timidness was gone, done in by age, the era’s urgency and the independent streak she thought the pandemic had deepened.

“I used to be capable of learn so much more about myself and where I assumed that I fit into the world and put less emphasis on fitting in with a gaggle of individuals and more of, hey, that is who I’m and I could be fluid throughout these groups of individuals,” Nurse said.

Furthermore, she said, she got here to simply accept that her standing as one in every of elite hockey’s only women of color demanded that she speak greater than she had allowed herself to check.

“People wouldn’t be getting this if it wasn’t coming from me,” she said.

Her parents now worry more concerning the blowback — “you’ve got to get off Twitter,” she tells her father — but individuals who have long known Nurse said they were unsurprised that, eventually, she was willing to challenge entrenched problems.

“She’s probably gotten more comfortable in her skin than she was five, six, seven years ago, but I feel it was all the time there,” said Johnson, lionized for his two goals in the US’ “Miracle on Ice” game on the 1980 Olympics and more familiar than most with the pains of Games fame. “Her platform obviously has modified within the last 15 months.”

Her glittering performance in Beijing, though, nearly didn’t occur: Within the months before the Games, Nurse, recovering from a knee injury, had been uncertain how much she would even see the ice. She didn’t practice or play with the Canadian team until after Christmas.

Previews of the Games often mentioned Nurse in passing, if in any respect. The Americans, the pre-eminent rivals to the Canadians in women’s hockey, were wary anyway.

“There was all the time a familiarity of, that is the form of player who’s going to have an effect because she plays the sport as a professional,” said Joel Johnson, who led the American squad in Beijing and coached teams that faced Nurse when she was at Wisconsin. “I feel some people have all the time known she’s got a capability to be a frontrunner and great, after which she just crushed it on the ice in the identical way.”

She had two assists in Canada’s opening game in Beijing, three goals within the second and a goal and an assist within the third. She recorded a single assist in Canada’s first game against the US but picked up 4 in a quarterfinal meeting with Sweden and one other 4 in a semifinal against Switzerland.

Because the gold medal game against the Americans approached, Blayre Turnbull, one other veteran of Wisconsin on the Canadian team, asked whether Nurse realized she was getting ready to matching Hayley Wickenheiser’s record 17 points at a single Olympics.

No.

All she was fascinated about, she recalled later, was how, after starting the Games on the third line, she can be sharing the primary with Marie-Philip Poulin and the way “I even have to be good because I’m twiddling with Poulin and she or he’s the gold medal girl.”

But Nurse was offside early, and Natalie Spooner’s goal for Canada vanished.

“I owe you one,” Spooner would remember Nurse saying to her on the bench.

Thirty-five seconds after the disallowed goal, Nurse scored and tied Wickenheiser’s mark. She later recorded an assist on Poulin’s Olympic-winning goal, helping Canada to avenge its 2018 defeat.

The gold medal Nurse craved now sometimes lives in a sock, its recipient scarcely it amid a blur of sponsorships, journal writings, workouts and walks along with her recent dog, Romeo. Now recognized on trains and in malls, she is considering pursuing one other Olympic roster.

But she is just not, she said, afraid to maneuver on from the game, or the rest. Rejection taught her to not be.

“We’re not,” she said, “meant to be pigeonholed.”

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