April 29, 2014
by Nick Barnowski, MSU Athletic Communications
Like most hockey fans, all Sara Sherman wanted to do was watch the Olympic gold medal game between the U.S. and Canada. It was Feb. 28, 2010, and every time she asked to put the game on TV, doctors in her hospital room said no.
Little did she know that not being able to watch the hockey game would be only the first of many barriers she'd have to accept, then battle through.
She had to remind herself that one day does not define a person, and just like the hockey players she so willingly wanted to watch, Sherman's journey did not begin or end on that day. It was the start of a transition to a new life, one that took her from frozen ice to flowing water, but one that never left her wavering.
* * *
Sherman's journey to hockey began in Long Beach, Calif., where she was born. She remembers spending time on the beach and going to Disneyland despite leaving the city at the age of six for Chesterfield, Mo. Her new home, located within 20 minutes of St. Louis, offered Sherman the opportunity to grow up in a thriving sports town.
"I really enjoyed living there," she said. "It's a lot of fun to go down there during the games and even if you don't have a ticket, to be in the atmosphere is great."
Sherman took advantage of the emphasis the city placed on sports, but at first, hockey was not on her radar. She was a self-proclaimed rebel and shied away from the sport in the elementary school.
"Everyone in my family played hockey, but I didn't want to because they did," she said. "But my dad [Steve] knew better - so he set me up doing figure skating in hockey skates and told me I was too competitive for it."
Before long, Sherman kept the hockey skates but added a stick to her repertoire.
"I officially started playing and I realized that I was way too competitive," said Sherman, who estimated she began playing in the third grade. "That feeling when you go out on the ice, it's second to none."
Hockey runs in the Sherman family. Sara's dad played growing up. Her mom, Laura, never laced up the skates but did play field hockey and is now a hockey mom. Brother T.J. plays hockey for Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. Her sister, Jessica, skates for the prestigious Shattuck St. Mary's prep school in Faribault, Minn., which produced NHL star Sidney Crosby and current Michigan State players John Draeger and Tanner Sorenson.
Sherman said that growing up with siblings who played hockey enhanced her experience.
"It was actually really cool," she said. "It brought out the competitiveness in all of us. I definitely don't think I would have been as good as I was without my little brother teasing me. You always work a little bit harder when you're around your siblings to I think it helped us all."
Sherman excelled in sports other than hockey as well. She started soccer around the time she started hockey, and once she began high school at Parkway Central, she picked up field hockey, cross-country, and track and field. Despite being a five-sport athlete, Sherman's true love remained hockey.
Her school did not field an ice hockey team so she played AAA in the Midwest Elite League for the Lady Blues, a team affiliated with the NHL's St. Louis Blues. The league saw her face some of Michigan's toughest competition, which includes the well-known Compuware, Little Caesar's, and Honeybaked programs.
"When I started playing [AAA] it was when the girls program started to come up, so I was there for the beginning of it which was really cool," she said. "We played against those other teams and at first, because we were a new program, we got clobbered by them. But when I was a senior we actually came pretty close, it was getting better and better."
After graduating high school, collegiate athletics was not something she was thinking about. She took visits to the University of Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Michigan, but knew that MSU was where she wanted to spend her college years. Playing against tough competition in AAA benefited her when she decided to try out for the Division 1 Spartan women's hockey team, which is not a varsity sport - but it is a highly-competitive club program..
"When I got here, I talked to the club coach about hockey," Sherman said. "Playing AAA, a lot of those girls go play Division 1 or Division 3 NCAA and I was thinking, `oh, it's club, it's no big deal.'"
She went to the tryout and realized just how competitive hockey at MSU was as 70 girls were on the ice. The team only took 22 on the roster. Sherman, as a freshman, made the team, but no one could have predicted the event that changed her life just a few months later.
* * *
She still believes that everything happens for a reason, but immediately after a game against Wisconsin, she thought, `why me?"
Sherman was in the neutral zone with the puck on her stick. She passed it back to a teammate, turned, and skated into the offensive zone, where she was met by a vicious cross-check to the back of the head from a Badger player.
She fell into the boards awkwardly, and while she was still on the ice, the same Wisconsin player kicked her in the head. After that, "there's not really a lot that I remember."
"I remember trying to stand back up and then I fell back down again," she explained. "I crawled off the ice, it's all such a blur."
The then- freshman was taken to the hospital, where a doctor told her that there would be good news and bad news: the good news was that she was in the hospital and able to be helped. The bad news: She had bleeding in her brain.
"As a kinesiology major, you hear about it and you never really think that can happen to you," she said. "[The doctor] said that this was a very serious condition and there's not a whole lot you can do about it. He said there are some things in your life that are going to have to change.
"When he said that, I think it hit me that this was going to be a lot more serious than anything else I've experienced before."
Sherman was told that most people who suffer from bleeding in the brain quit school and try to work trade jobs, but she wasn't going to let everything she had worked for evaporate into thin air.
"I was like, I made it this far, I'm not going to drop out now," she said. "But this kind of experience causes you to grow up really fast."
The side effects of the injury were taking its toll on Sherman. She had a hard time focusing in math class and sometimes could not even hold a pencil in her hand. After an impeccable first semester GPA, she failed classes in her second semester. She was 18 years old, and spent the majority of her time working with insurance companies and trying to find a way to get to the hospital without a car.
"I was in a very difficult place and there was a lot of friends I had to lean on that I could not thank more," she said. "Going from one extreme to the other, and dealing with something being taken out of my life so quickly was difficult."
Slowly, her brain healed. With rest over the summer, she was able to get back on the ice despite going against the recommendations of her doctors. Her stacked Spartan team won the ACHA Division 1 national championship in 2011, only a year after the injury.
"That experience was incredible," Sherman said. "I felt on top of the world. It was really cool because some of the girls I grew up playing with were on some of the teams we ended up playing against."
She decided to play hockey again in her junior year, but quickly realized the ability that made her a valuable player was slipping away.
"After playing for so long, you realize when you lose a step," she said. "I wasn't as fast as I used to be and that was the biggest part of my game. My fine motor skills just weren't exactly where I wanted them to be."
Despite these lingering emotions, Sherman refused to quit on her team in the middle of the season. Before the beginning of the next campaign, she decided to move on from the sport that had captivated her mind for so long.
"I remember when I was younger and playing hockey and I would be so excited," she said, "and I kind of lost that edge because I had lost an edge in myself.
"It's been a focal point of my life for so long and to have it disappear overnight was really difficult."
* * *
After conquering a life changing injury, it would have taken a lot to stop Sherman from succeeding; a 5-foot-4 inch girl being told that she was pretty short to be a rower may have deterred others, but it wasn't the end of the road for a determined athlete like Sherman.
"I went to Jenison [to tryout] and I walked up all four flights of stairs and with every flight I was thinking that this isn't for me, I shouldn't be doing this," she said.
Sherman was introduced to the sport through a friend who rowed at Notre Dame and via a couple of former hockey teammates. They told her she was too good of an athlete to sit around - and that rowing is something she'd excel at.
She met with novice coach Katie Bitz and immediately felt comforted.
"She was so nice," Sherman said. "It was a huge relief off my shoulders and it was all I could do from stopping myself from crying because I was explaining myself to a new coach in a new sport that I thought was like canoeing."
Still trying to deal with the fact that she likely would never play a contact sport again, Sherman worked with Bitz to learn the ways of the water. She credits Coach Bitz for being patient when complications from her head injury would flare up, and eventually grew to fall in love with the sport.
"The coolest thing about rowing is that it's a selfless sport," Sherman said. "Every stroke you feel like death but you just keep going, and that was a feeling that I hadn't had in a long time. In some ways, it kind of reminded me of when I first started playing hockey."
In the spring of 2013, her senior year and first year as a rower, Sherman did well on MSU's novice team. She finished third in a four-boat race with Michigan, Ohio State, and Indiana early in the season. She rowed in the six spot on two MSU boats that won races at the Clemson Invitational. To close out the season, she helped the novice eight finish one place better than they were seeded at the Big Ten championships.
This season, her first as a varsity rower, has also brought some success. On Mar. 28 Sherman's second varsity eight boat defeated Rutgers and Boston University by 30 seconds with a time of 7:11.4. Head coach Matt Weise is happy with the team's continued progress, and Sherman and her teammates are working to improve as Michigan State zeroes in on the Big Ten and NCAA championships that take place in May.
Sherman meant it when she said, "only the strong survive" in rowing. Following her novice season she suffered from pneumonia, a pulled hamstring, and three rib fractures. With a year of eligibility still remaining, and classes still left to take, she returned to school as a fifth-year senior. She was honored when varsity coach Matt Weise asked her to be a team captain, but with the injuries that kept her away from practices and some classroom commitments, she stepped down from the position.
"[Being asked to be a captain] was a pretty cool experience because this year was my first year on varsity and it was a huge confidence booster that I think I needed," she said. "To know that what you're doing is right, and that they viewed me as a leader."
The hockey-player-turned-rower can't help but relate the two sports whenever she can. Only one regular-season racing weekend remains before the Big Ten Championships at Eagle Creek Reservoir in Indianapolis, Ind., and Sherman said MSU's goal is to make it to the NCAA championship regatta.
"I know that I've accomplished a lot in the years that I've been here. To win something like that would be even more remarkable because I would be conquering all of the barriers I've had to overcome. I think it would be really cool to walk out of here with two rings in two different sports in five years."
* * *
When she leaves Michigan State, her journey will have just begun.
Most of those plans include traveling. She backpacked through Europe three years ago using money she had been saving since she was 10. This summer she is hoping to land a job at the U.S. Olympic training center in Colorado Springs, Colo., and next fall she is planning on moving to Australia for a couple of months to take care of her family doctor's mother.
She'll have a degree in kinesiology with an emphasis on exercise physiology and a specialization in bio ethics, and when she takes time off from traveling she hopes to begin graduate school for exercise physiology.
Her goal is to help and inspire those with disabilities and ultimately wants to work with those involved in the Paralympics.
"For me, exercise has always been an outlet," she said. "I'd really like to pass that on to people that are maybe handicapped or were not allowed to play because of [a condition]. It's a very specific thing and I don't know exactly where it will take me, but that's something I would like to carry on in my future."
After everything she has overcome, there's no reason to believe she won't inspire others with her own story.