The double blades carrying the sled that Liz Davis was piloting dug into the ice as she changed directions.
She had a breakaway opportunity and a teammate saw Davis had beaten her defender, and fired the puck across ice hoping to catch Davis in rhythm.
The puck clanked off a blade, and she had to dig it out as her defender crashed into her. She was able to squeeze off a shot that went wide right, then chased down the puck and began to battle for possession against the wall – all while using just her arms.
It was a Sunday in December, and Davis was near the end of a long shift. Twelve people watched from above in wooden bleachers at the downtown Chicago McFetridge Sports Complex.
They had come to support friends and family who were playing in an adaptive sports hockey league designed for those with physical disabilities. Some, like Mark Davies, happened to wander in and couldn’t pull himself away from the action.
“This is incredible,” said Davies, an Oak Park resident and father of two who leaned against the glass.
Water pooled around a nearby Zamboni, moments after smoothing the scarred ice during an intermission. One of Davies’ sons had a game at the rink later on, and Davies arrived early and decided to watch.
“When my son finishes changing, I hope he can take something away from this,” Davies said. “I’m inspired right now. It’s incredible what they’re able to do.”
Despite using halved hockey sticks to move along the ice, as well as pass and shoot, Davis doesn’t think she’s doing anything incredible. She isn’t afraid to crash into larger players or take off full-speed into a scrum along the boards. For the 26-year-old Sterling resident, sled hockey is fun, and she happens to be one of the top females in the country.
Davis was recently offered a roster spot on the U.S. Women’s National team’s development squad. The team acts as a feeder to the national team, which Davis hopes to be a part of by the 2018 or 2022 Olympic games.
“It’s great,” Davis said. “It’s the first year they’ve had the funding for a women’s development team, and it’s an honor to be selected.”
Davis was born with caudal regression syndrome, a congenital disorder that affects development of the spine. She went through numerous surgeries as a child, and now has a fused spine, as well as metal rods in her back to help support her body.
It was tough for her to walk as a child. She would swing her legs with the support of a walker, and used other objects to steady herself. The surgeries took away her ability to walk, but she never let her physical limitations act as a deterrent.
Davis’ mother, Marsha House, said her daughter always looked for the next obstacle to climb no matter the odds against her.
“She’s our most athletic child,” said House, who has three children. “She’s always been interested in football and basketball. She’s a go-getter. She’s just wired that way.”
When asked about House’s reaction to Davis playing hockey, and then her ascension to becoming a pick for the national team’s development league, House didn’t flinch.
“With Liz, nothing surprises me anymore,” House said. “Not one thing. She puts her heart into everything she does. She doesn’t waste any opportunity.”
Davis tried just about every sport growing up in Sterling. Though she had a hard time finding adaptive sports in the area, it didn’t stop her from trying wheelchair basketball or competing on the parallel bars in gymnastics. She participated in P.E. class through her freshman year of high school, and even learned to skateboard by sitting on her legs the same way she does in her sled.
In high school, Davis made a video of herself practicing at the skate park behind the Duis Center. She spent most of the summer perfecting her balance, and learned to drop in on the 4-foot ramp by the end of the summer.
“It was 90 percent me just falling over,” Davis said of the video. “But on that ramp, I could drop in. I worked at it all summer because it was the only sport I could occupy myself with.”
Davis is in her second season with the GLASA Falcons, a co-ed team. GLASA – Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association – sponsors the team and helps offset the costs of adaptive sports, which can be expensive with the specialized equipment.
This was an opportunity Davis jumped at. Through a Facebook group for those with disabilities looking to stay active, she met Karen Tamley, the commissioner of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities in Chicago.
Tamley invited Davis to have lunch with her, and told her about the adaptive sports hockey league and encouraged Davis to simply get in a sled and try it.
“I had been doing 5Ks with GLASA, and I was told to try out hockey,” Davis said. “[Karen] Tamley is super busy, but she invited me for lunch and said I’d enjoy it. So I tried it out. She was so nice in taking time of of her busy day to meet with me. She’s the kind of person who is always looking out.”
Davis fell in love with the sport right away, and has since dedicated herself to it. She soon met Dave Rotter, a doctor who specializes in making prosthetics, who also customizes adaptive spots equipment. He made a sled for Davis, designing the seat portion to snugly fit to her body. It also had enough room for her to sit on her curled legs.
The practices and games for her GLASA Falcons team require her to drive almost 2 hours each way. She drives to Lake Bluff and Chicago weekly. The drives are something she wasn’t able to do before she saved enough money to purchase a customized Dodge Grand Caravan in 2013.
The vehicle accommodates her, complete with a lowered floor, a twisting chair, and hand controls to drive. It’s also large enough to transport her hockey gear.
“I describe it to people as a spaceship chair,” Davis said. “I tried out three or four different controls, and this one fit me. Before the van, I wasn’t able to do any of these things.”
“Getting the van opened up a whole new world for her,” Marsha said. “She was hindered in Sterling, as there are not that many activities for her that she wanted to do.”
Liz Davis file
College: Ashford University, Clinton, Iowa
Occupation: Halo Branded Solutions, Sterling
FYI: Davis was offered a roster spot on the development team for the women’s national sled hockey team.