Sled Hockey Hopeful Eyes Beijing in 2022
Story by Keerthi Vedantam
Photos by Karla A. Worthington
Video by Keerthi Vedantam
Sled hockey–it’s a sport characterized by sharp turns on the ice, slamming into the boards, and the occasional bodycheck that can spin a player out of control…before they find their center and get back in the play.
This doesn’t phase Lera Doederlein. She’s one of the smallest players and by far the youngest–14 years old. Some of the athletes she’s up against have been playing longer than she’s been alive.
“Even after just a few months of playing this sport, I’m in love with it,” Doederlein said.
She was born with arthrogryposis, a condition that affects roughly one in 3,000 babies. It weakened Doederlein’s hip and leg joints and rendered her unable to walk, but, according to her father, she never stopped moving.
“We couldn’t take our eyes off her,” Dave Doederlein said.
Doederlein grew up wearing heavy braces to stabilize her legs and used crutches to support herself. She loved watching sports and played the few that required only upper-body strength, like swimming. She was active on her feet, and crutches and braces would break often. Then, the inevitable future:
“You know Lera, if you keep going like this eventually you’ll end up in a wheelchair,” her doctor said. Doederlein was growing, and her body was becoming too heavy for her legs to support. The doctor brought up a word that would change the course of Doederlein’s life for the next two years: Amputation.
“I was like, ‘Hey, this might not be that bad of an idea’,” Doederlein said.
Her family was worried, but Doederlein decided to take the plunge and undergo a double amputation.
The next two years were a whirlwind; After several physical therapy appointments, consultations and consoling worried parents (“Lera’s a risk-taker and I’m not,” Dave Doederlein said), Doederlein had a double amputation in July 2017. That same month, her prosthetics were fitted.
“I’m glad they trusted me,” Doederlein said about her family, “It opened up a lot more opportunities for me like sports.”
Throughout the physical therapy process, Doederlein’s prosthetist convinced her to join the Arizona Coyotes post-surgery. She did just that in October.
“I never even saw myself doing hockey until I got into it,” Doederlein said. “I loved it as soon as I got on the ice.”
As the youngest person on the team, Doederlein had an advantage: Using crutches all those years to keep herself up, her upper body strength was good enough to propel her quickly on the ice. As for keeping her body balanced on the blade under her seat, Doederlein’s teammates are helping her find tricks and techniques that work for her.
“It’s all about teamwork,” Doederlein said. “Like if one person gets backed up the other steps in and takes care of the job for you.”
And now, her eyes are on a bigger prize: the Paralympics. She wants to be one of the rare Arizona natives to compete in the winter games.
“Sled hockey really shows you what teamwork is. And it’s really nice to know that you can do this sport when you’re different.”
For Doederlein, the Paralympics isn’t about the glory of the gold medal. It’s about pushing herself.
“It’s about knowing that I didn’t give up in the process,” Doederlein said. “Just like in a math test, or school or anything in life, it’s good to know that you did this on your own.”
Keerthi Vedantam is a Silicon Valley native studying journalism and graphic design at Arizona State University. She’s always on the lookout for good stories and innovative ways to tell them. Outside of Ability360, she produces podcasts and takes pictures. Keerthi lives on a steady diet of hot sauce and podcasts, and she wouldn’t want it any other way.