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Countdown to Vancouver

Fit for duty

At 30, Ruggiero is pumped up for a fourth Olympiad with hockey team

By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / January 17, 2010

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Donald Trump fired Angela Ruggiero midway through Season 6 of “The Apprentice.’’ Then, behind the scenes of his reality show, Trump offered Ruggiero a real-life job. With a Harvard degree and a complete set of Olympic medals in women’s ice hockey, Ruggiero stood out. And Trump doesn’t part easily with potentially valuable team members.

“What do you want to do?’’ asked Trump, shortly after the 2006 Winter Olympics. Ruggiero mentioned her experience working in commercial real estate. “Do you want to do that?’’ asked Trump. Ruggiero wasn’t sure. Before she could commit, there was one more question to answer.

“Do I have it in me to go for another Olympics?’’ Ruggiero asked herself.

Several months away from hockey made the answer clear. Ruggiero would put her life on hold for another shot at gold in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. She would train for her fourth Winter Games. Under one condition.

“I guess I got to the point where I was like, ‘OK, if I give up all this to play hockey, I want to make sure it’s worth it,’ ’’ recalled Ruggiero. “I wanted to make sure I was in the best shape of my life, that I left everything out there for Vancouver. That I had no regrets at the end of the road, regardless of what happened.’’

When the Vancouver Olympics begin next month, Ruggiero, 30, will lead the US women’s hockey team. At her age, most athletes start to decline physically. They contemplate retirement. Working out for Vancouver was, in many ways, working against the march of time. Ruggiero changed her training routine, joining a group of NHL players for offseason workouts at Athletes’ Performance in Southern California.

The experts at AP have handled the offseason training of many NHL, MLB, NBA, and NFL stars, including Red Sox players Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, and Kevin Youkilis and the Patriots’ Laurence Maroney. Ruggiero discovered a strength-and-conditioning routine that turned back the clock. Her new approach relied less on powering through workouts and paid more attention to detail.

At the AP facility in Carson, Calif. - a world away from the US women’s residency program in Blaine, Minn. - the NHL players pushed Ruggiero. The training group included the New York Rangers’ Chris Drury, the New York Islanders’ Richard Park, and the Anaheim Ducks’ George Parros.

“Because I was alongside the guys, it was like I was younger again,’’ said Ruggiero. “I had to prove myself. At first, everyone’s kind of like, ‘Can she do it?’ But I’m one of the stronger athletes in the women’s game. So, I could lift with them. I could run with them.’’

All her workouts were done at the same intensity as the guys, albeit with slightly lighter weights.

“I was very, very impressed,’’ said Drury, a veteran member of the US men’s Olympic team. “There wasn’t a day that went by where one of the guys wasn’t saying, ‘Wow, look at that’ and ‘She’s strong’ and ‘How’d she do that?’ Seeing how hard she works and how committed she was, it was pretty obvious why she’s as good as she is.’’

She’s no ballerina
From the moment the 5-foot-9-inch, 192-pound Ruggiero walks into a room, her athleticism and strength are obvious. A sweatshirt and jeans can’t disguise her broad, muscular shoulders and powerfully built legs. Still, Ruggiero moves with lightness and agility. She carries herself with confidence. It wasn’t always easy, but Ruggiero said she has learned “to embrace who I am and my size.’’

“There are a lot of little girls who aren’t going to be ballerinas,’’ said Ruggiero. “They’re going to be hockey players or something else. I can accept that I’m a bigger girl and be OK with that. That muscle is helping me play Olympic hockey.’’

And earn recognition as one of the best ever in the women’s game. With an affinity for physical play and eagerness to jump into the offensive action, Ruggiero was voted top defenseman at the 2002 and 2006 Olympics and at the 2001, 2004, 2005, and 2008 World Championships. In 2003, she was voted the world’s best female hockey player by The Hockey News. The following year, the Harvard defenseman was awarded the Patty Kazmaier Trophy, given annually to the best women’s college hockey player.

Ruggiero will enter the Vancouver Olympics as the all-time leader in games played for Team USA. She is a smarter, slightly less aggressive player than she was when she made her Olympic debut at 18. But she will be no less integral to the team, seeing time on power plays and penalty kills in addition to regular shifts in a rotation of six defensemen.

“As athletes get older, as you start entering into your 30s, those days off in the summer start to disappear because you know it’s harder to stay on top of your game,’’ said US coach Mark Johnson. “The game’s changed from four, eight years ago. A player who once dominated who’s still in the game has to work extremely hard to keep up not only their fitness level, but their skill level.’’

When asked if Ruggiero should still be considered among the top players in women’s hockey, Johnson said, “She’s putting herself in a position to be that. Maybe she has her best Olympics ever. She’s been on the world stage for a long period of time. She’s a hockey player that has a presence.’’

‘Angela’s workout’
Ruggiero arrived at her first Athletes’ Performance workout “nervous and excited,’’ she said, though while learning the game in Southern California she had crossed paths with many of the NHL players in the training group. It helped that Ruggiero grew up playing with boys. And that she made history as the first female non-goaltender to play professional men’s hockey in North America. For one game in 2005, she joined her brother Bill on the Central Hockey League’s Tulsa Oilers.

Last summer at Athletes’ Performance, Ruggiero gained more explosiveness and quickness, assets needed in the evolving women’s game. The 2 1/2-hour training sessions focused on form and efficiency of movement, forcing Ruggiero to develop new strengths besides her, well, obvious strength. During the cardio portion of workouts, Ruggiero always made sure her heart rate fell into its targeted zone. As the season approached, the hockey players drove from the gym to a nearby mall for an hour of ice time.

“She probably challenged us as much as we challenged her,’’ said Drury. “When we started skating, she didn’t miss a beat. Seeing her, I realized how good women’s hockey has become.’’

Ruggiero returned to Team USA lifting heavier weights, but also more conscious of how she needed to stretch and care for her body pre- and post-workout. At Athletes’ Performance, while many of the core lifts were familiar, she learned “all the peripheral stuff’’ and “all those little, simple details that add up.’’

As testament to her improved explosiveness, she increased her one-arm snatch from 30 pounds to 65 pounds. She also lost 8 pounds of fat and gained 6 pounds of muscle.

Most impressively, in US team testing, Ruggiero’s fitness level has been among the best on the squad. Her heart rate recovers from extreme exertion during shifts as quickly as any of her younger teammates’.

At Athletes’ Performance, they still talk about “Angela’s workout,’’ a grueling treadmill run done at a 7-minute-30-second mile pace with the incline gradually ratcheted up to painfully steep levels.

“I could see she was past her physical limit, but mentally she wasn’t done,’’ said her Athletes’ Performance strength and conditioning coach Jenny Noiles. “She just kept going. I didn’t have to give her intensity. She brought it. I don’t want to say a legend, but you have certain athletes who really leave a footprint and Angela most definitely did.’’

The thought of winning gold and leaving her mark, one more time, on Olympic ice kept Ruggiero going.

Mining for gold
Experience tells Ruggiero the relatively young US team has a good chance to win gold. The final will likely come down to the US and Canada.

With a silver medal from the Salt Lake City Games in 2002, Ruggiero knows the pressures that can trip up the home team. A bronze from the 2006 Torino Games reminds her that anything can happen in Olympic play, that Sweden and Finland are capable of challenging North American dominance.

“It’s like we go back and forth with Canada, yet they have the weight of their country on their back,’’ said Ruggiero. “Hockey is their sport. Plus, they’re veterans and we have a lot of rookies on our team.’’

Of the 21 players on the US roster, only six have Olympic experience. Ruggiero and forward Jenny Potter, 31, are the only players who have been members of every US women’s team since the inaugural Olympic tournament at the 1998 Games. But Ruggiero is a different person and player than the wide-eyed teenager who won gold in 1998.

“I don’t want to say ‘mother hen’ because I’m not that old, but I feel kind of like the older sister,’’ said Ruggiero. “It’s really enjoyable for me to watch my teammates right now. Even on the pre-Olympic tour, they get so excited.’’

When the team reaches Vancouver, Ruggiero will be in the middle of the action, the familiar and widely promoted face of Team USA. The world will be watching her. And the arena crowd might even include Trump; Ruggiero invited the Trump family to the Games.

“I told them I could get tickets for them if they want,’’ she said.

Smart move. Ruggiero may want a new job come March, though she hasn’t completely ruled out the 2014 Sochi Games.

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com.