Returning to CU as a world champion

For Castleton University student Emily Harris, it still feels “weird” to be back on campus after leaving Castleton almost spontaneously for one of the biggest opportunities of her life. 

And her trip proved to be worth it: In her suitcase back to the States, she brought a gold medal from the Women´s Ice Hockey Division Two World Championships in Jaca, Spain.

Harris, born and raised in England, is a sophomore at Castleton and a dual-sport athlete, playing for Castleton’s field hockey and ice hockey teams. Despite going to the United States in 2020, her coaches from England always kept an eye on her.

“They watch me a lot on videos, talked to my coaches over here, and got a feel for the kind of player and person I am,” Harris said.

Through those close contacts, her coaches  developed the confidence to select Harris to play for England in the ice hockey World Championships.

“I found out I was selected only about a month before we actually went,” said Harris, recalling the very short span of time to plan her trip overseas. “I notified my teachers and basically headed over as fast as I could.”

Throughout her hockey season here, Harris experienced a few setbacks, especially not being selected to play for England in another tournament, the Olympic qualifiers, a few months earlier. That was an eye-opener and “a tough one to swallow,” the 19-year-old said. 

“Gathering back that confidence to believe I would be selected for the World Champs was hard for me,” said Harris. “It was more of a hope than a certainty to be selected. Everyone around me knew I was ready; I just didn’t know it myself.”

When she found out all the hard work she had put in throughout the year finally had paid off, it felt like a “complete relief,” she said.

To play for the national team of England was a dream come true for the young athlete.

“To be in a team with people who I looked up to all my life, it was incredible,” Harris said with a proud smile on her face. She was the only new player, and in addition one of the youngest to join the team.

“To come into such a tight-knit group that already had been formed was quite nerve wrecking,” Harris said, remembering her fears before going to Spain. “Bus as soon as I got there, I knew I would be fine.”

To be prepared in the best way possible, Harris left the States already two weeks before the actual start of the tournament. Her first stop overseas was her hometown, Crondall, England. Harris didn’t go home for Christmas break, so her week at home was all about “spending time with the people I love.”

As a double-sport athlete, Harris had just finished playing two seasons back-to-back in the States, leaving her exhausted.

“I had a pretty short span to recover and get my body where it should have been at before walking into the biggest tournament of my life,” she said.

After recharging her batteries, Harris joined her team for a training camp in England before ultimately leaving for Spain. From the moment the camp started, her team was living in a “bubble” for COVID precautions, not being allowed to see anybody but players, coaches and staff. Even during the tournament in Spain, Harris was not allowed to see her mother and girlfriend, who had traveled all the way to support her. Nevertheless, Harris talked about her “really good support system.”

“The commitment of the fans was awesome. Even though we weren’t allowed to see any of the fans, we knew they were supporting us,” Harris said.

Going into the tournament as medal contenders, that support was mirrored by a strong performance on the ice. The tournament was a “round robin,” meaning each team played each other an equal number of times. The four teams Harris had to play against included Spain, Mexico, Taiwan, and Latvia. 

“We knew that we were in a position where we should have won gold,” Harris said about her team. “We have been in that division for seven years, and with the level of potential we have in England, we should at least be a group or two above where we were.”

Harris saw that each of the teams could put up a good fight, but her team was simply demonstrating that they were “so ready to win.”

“We had the right group, the right coaches, we all had the same goal going into the championships,” Harris said about her team´s spirit. “Everyone pulled into that goal, no matter if you were on the first line playing half an hour in a game or if you were sitting on the bench – which for me, I spent quite a lot of time on the bench.”

But the young athlete did get the chance to show her talent. Harris was able to score two goals throughout the tournament, which she describes as “the best experience I ever had.”

The 4-0 victory against Latvia was a highlight for Harris.

“I played maybe five minutes during the entire game but scored a goal,” Harris said proudly.  “I think that´s when I really put a stamp on and showed I was ready to compete.”

What Harris believes was the key to her team´s success was the balance of experienced athletes coming with all their skill as well as young athletes having the needed speed. 

“There are a couple of girls who are now in their 30s. Which means when I was a kid, they were already playing, they were already awesome,” Harris said in awe. But next to those experienced athletes, her team also displayed a lot of young athletes. 

“We had the speed, and we had the skill,” Harris said. 

Harris´ position during the tournament was center, despite predominantly playing as a winger here. While the switch in positions came as surprise, Harris had a lot of experience in both positions and felt comfortable playing either one of them.

“I didn’t know where I would be on the team. I didn’t know if I would be on first line or fourth line. I was ready for anything,” she said. 

While being a student-athlete at Castleton has been great for Harris academically and athletically, it comes with a disadvantage compared to her English teammates. 

“It´s obviously hard for your coaches to see your development path if you’re on the other side of the pond,” Harris said. 

As for Harris’ personal goals, she wants to play for the national team as long as she possibly can. 

“I want to be like the players I look up to right now,” Harris said.

When getting into the sport as a child, she didn’t experience a lot of support for women’s ice hockey, but she believes that support is coming through now. Her team’s motto throughout the tournament, to “leave a legacy,” stuck with young player. Besides aiming to win the tournament, her team’s goal was to build on this motto and “make sure that kids know what a great sport ice hockey is for women to play,” she said.

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