PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – Alex Rigsby confesses she didn’t even know what kind of history she was making that day.
“I had no idea,” says the Team USA goalie. “I knew the draft was going on. I was driving to pick up my brother from lacrosse practice. I’m starting to get all these texts. I thought they were just messing with me.”
The texts told Rigsby she had been picked No. 199 in the 2009 USHL draft. She was suddenly a member of the Chicago Steel.
That’s a men’s team.
The story she’s told goes like this: The head coach of the Steel at the time went to one of her club games to scout a male player and couldn’t help but notice the goalie. “That guy is really good,” he thought to himself.
He watched the goalie for a few more minutes and eventually spotted a ponytail.
“Please tell me,” he thought, “that’s a guy with long hair.”
It was not. And it didn’t matter. The team drafted her, and she became the first woman ever drafted into the USHL.
It wasn’t a publicity stunt. (There isn’t a ton of publicity for the Chicago Steel anyway.) Rigsby started at a goalie camp of around 50 and made her way through multiple cuts to the final three.
She was 17 at the time.
Rigsby’s history is a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but it’s old news in her world. Gino Cavallini, a former NHLer who now runs the Chicago Mission traveling hockey club, has been used to Rigsby’s dominance since he spotted her as a 10-year-old in Wisconsin.
“When she came down to play for us in Chicago, she beat out boys,” Cavallini says. “One of the goalies that got cut went on to play D-I hockey.”
These days Rigsby spends her summers practicing on the same rinks as many NHL players. She joins them in their workouts, including the “Strong Man Circuit.” She’s just another goalie trying to hone her craft. “In no way am I intimidated,” she says. “It’s fun to go out there.”
But Rigsby’s trailblazing is not the point of her career or her dreams. What she wants is right in front of her now, here in South Korea.
And it will be more difficult than anything else she’s done on a pair of skates.
She was born in Illinois and her family moved around – first to California and then outside Milwaukee. She wanted to play hockey like her older brother, Zach, and like every other kid she rotated through the positions. Then she got to try on the goalie pads and that was it. She didn’t want to go back.
“By the time I was in third grade, I was one week as a goalie, one week as a skater,” she says. “By fifth grade I was a full-time goalie. I haven’t put on player skates since seventh grade.”
It was around that time Cavallini recruited her. It wasn’t something iconoclastic for him. He coached a local team and she was a standout. That’s it.
“For me there was no distinction,” he says. “Gender wasn’t involved. She was the better goalie. No one was doing her any favors. The first year I coached her, I had a younger assistant coach. I would tell her, ‘Don’t baby the puck. Shoot as hard as you can now. If she wants to make it, she’s gonna have to be better than the rest of them.’ ”
And she was. Through grade school and high school, Alex played on boys’ teams. She would change in a separate room or a stall and then finish dressing next to the boys.
“All the guys were super cool with it,” she says. “We were part of a team and they understand what I was doing and working toward. And they protected me on the ice. I never had to be afraid of getting run by other teams.”
The hard part came when Cavallini moved to Chicago to take over the Mission. He wanted Alex to follow him but she wasn’t even in high school yet. She couldn’t pick up and move her entire family.
So instead she commuted.
Three times a week, one of Alex’s parents would make the two-hour drive to Chicago after school. She would do homework in the car, practice with the Mission, and then drive back. They’d get home after midnight and set an early alarm for school the next day.
“It was a great opportunity we didn’t want to pass up,” she says with a shrug.
It was a travel club, too. Alex went with the team to Sweden in sixth grade. The next year, the destination was Moscow and neither of her parents could make it. Gino offered to take her – he had a son on the team so it was a family trip for them – and Alex’s mom had one condition:
“I learned how to braid her hair,” Gino says with a laugh. “I did learn how to braid a girl’s hair.”
On an October afternoon, Rigsby sits in a Dick’s Sporting Goods and laughs at the memory of her coach doing her hair. Since those days, she won a national title at Wisconsin and won 100 games there to go with more than 3,000 saves. She underwent not one but two hip surgeries, overcoming doctors’ doubts about her future as an elite goalie. She felt she was good enough for Team USA in 2014, but she wasn’t chosen. She admits she’s still perplexed about that decision.
“I was happy with my performance [that year],” she says. “My name wasn’t called.”
The Americans lost a heartbreaker in overtime to the Canadians in Sochi and finished with silver.
Since then Rigsby has graduated, picked up some shifts at Dick’s to get by, and just recently got engaged to an old teammate: Gino’s son, Aidan.
“I’m happy for both of them,” Gino says. “They’re a great couple. They’ve known each other a long time. I’m a happy dad.”
Alex has spent every spare minute focused on making sure there is no Olympic disappointment this time. She won a world championship as a part of Team USA last year, but PyeongChang holds the ultimate prize. And if the pressure isn’t enough already, the team’s coach is former NHL goalie Robb Stauber. As of a day before the team’s first game, he still had not named a starting goalie for the opener.
“We know how bad they wanted it last time,” Rigsby says, “and how bad we want it now.”
Rigsby had a new mask made for the Olympics, with a drawing of the famous V-J Day kiss in Times Square. The history she herself has made is something for her to cherish when she has a moment to reflect. The history she wants is approaching fast.
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