The weight of Katya Blong’s unique Olympic gold
No one would have picked New Zealand's first Winter Youth Olympics gold to come from ice hockey, but Katya Blong's medal may boost a sport struggling to get girls on ice.
It’s 7pm, and Katya Blong is on a top bunk in the dorm room she shares with five other girls at an ice hockey academy in Ontario.
It’s cosy and noisy and what you’d imagine a room of six teenage girls might look like. But maybe not what you’d expect for an Olympic gold medallist.
Pinned to the wall next to her bed is a sweep of memorabilia – including a New Zealand team bag and a pair of glasses in the shape of the Olympic rings. Reminders of the unforgettable moment 14-year-old Blong made New Zealand sporting history – becoming our first gold medallist at a Youth Winter Olympics.
That was back in January, when Blong’s multinational team won the 3-on-3 ice hockey tournament in Lausanne.
Now it’s March, and Blong is fighting off a cold. She's back into her daily rhythm of gym, school, training on the ice, then more school before dinner at the Ontario Hockey Academy.
She’s been at this private school in Cornwall – an hour’s drive from Canada’s capital, Ottawa – since August last year and she loves it.
It was her decision to leave her family in Auckland to live at the academy – which, on its website, calls itself North America’s most successful hockey school.
“I wanted to play in Canada, because in New Zealand, well, you can guess it’s not quite as strong,” Blong says.
“There’s no reason why someone from a country with seven rinks shouldn’t be as good as someone with 200,000.”
It’s Blong’s end goal to play ice hockey for a division one team at an American college, but timing wise, that’s still some way off.
Her family back home support her in her dream. After all, they are New Zealand ice hockey royalty.
Although she grew up in the sub-tropical climes of Auckland, Katya Blong has spent most of her life on ice.
Her father, Darren, was the captain of the Ice Blacks – our national men’s hockey team – for eight years. And her grandparents, Ross and Nell Blong, were responsible for creating Paradice.
As legend has it, Ross came in from “a particularly unpleasant milking” on the family’s dairy farm in Northland one day, and told Nell he’d had enough and wanted to do something different.
In 1974, the couple sold up and bought an ice skating rink in Glen Innes, calling it Paradice. In the early ‘80s, they built New Zealand’s first international-sized indoor ice rink in Avondale. In 1999, the Blongs built the country’s first Olympic-sized rink in Botany Downs.
Katya wanted to play hockey from the moment she saw her dad rush across the ice. One of New Zealand’s greatest players, Darren Blong represented the country for 14 years, played for teams in Canada and Russia, and was honoured by the International Hockey Hall of Fame.
“I first started playing when I was four,” Katya says. “Before that I was, ‘Please let me go, please let me go!’ But my dad forced me to learn how to skate before I could play hockey.”
Soon she was training on the Avondale rink six times a week. With her parents owning a sports shop right next door, she could go skating any time she pleased.
“When I was little, I really wanted to play for the best men’s team. But then I realised, ‘Oh, that’s not going to happen’. I just wanted to play something cool, something good,” Blong says.
Which led to her selection for the New Zealand team at this year’s Youth Winter Olympics.
The mixed nation 3-on-3 cross-ice tournament was introduced at these Olympics to meet the growing global demand for shorter, faster sports events, like beach volleyball and basketball’s 3x3.
The idea was to have eight teams made up of 13 athletes from 13 different countries - with the challenge not only to quickly bond as a team, but also to communicate without a common language. Each player would have one minute on the ice, before being subbed off, and there was no body-checking allowed.
Blong and Tallulah Bryant, from Wakatipu High School, were the two Kiwi girls chosen to play in the inaugural tournament; Blong assigned to Team Yellow and Bryant, Team Brown.
Blong had never met any of her team-mates before. They were from Norway, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Mexico, Spain, South Korea, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany and Austria.
“I was the only fluent English speaker in my team. And my coach couldn’t speak English very well either,” Blong says. “Some of them were pretty good, but some had no clue.
“Everyone knew the words ‘shoot’ and ‘pass’, then we’d have to get out our phones and Google Translate the rest.”
They had an inauspicious start together – “we lost our practice games real bad, and I was like ‘I don’t know how great we’re going to be’.”
But they improved as the week went on, and beat Bryant’s Brown side in the semi-finals. Blong was nervous going into the final against Black, a side who’d beaten them in pool play, but Yellow decisively won the final 6-1.
Blong, a forward, was commended for her defensive game in securing gold. “Sometimes when you go up to score you lose the puck, you know? So in that last game all I wanted to do was make sure they didn’t score, because we got a head start early. If we had the puck, then they couldn’t score.”
She had no idea she was the first New Zealander to win gold at a Youth Winter Olympics – “not until I went through the media zone,” she says.
“I hadn’t realised what a big deal it was. It's unreal.”
Ice hockey is a male-dominated sport in New Zealand. Of its 1800 players, just over 300 are women and girls.
Andy Mills, the president of the New Zealand Ice Hockey Federation, says Blong’s success in Lausanne will hopefully inspire more girls to get in the game.
“It’s a challenge to attract girls, because it’s not a traditional Kiwi sport,” Mills says. But that doesn’t mean they’re not trying.
Recently, there’s been growth in the female game in the regions – especially Queenstown and Dunedin – where the focus has been on having fun.
“All they want to do is turn up, play with their mates and have fun,” Mills says. “You see clubs with five or six new learn-to-play girls, which is great. But we need more than that.”
Ice hockey also faces a sport-wide problem, keeping girls playing. They’ve tried to address that by lifting junior hockey age groups through to 18. But while numbers are low, girls play in teams with boys.
“It makes them strong and pretty resilient. But it’s a double-edged sword – it scares a few girls off too,” Mills admits.
"But it's the best team sport I've been involved in. It's high energy, there's a really tight team environment, and there's plenty of padding."
There are now clearer pathways in the sport too. Last month, the New Zealand U18 women played in a world championship for the first time – in the past, they’ve only played against teams in Asia. Katya Blong made her debut wearing the silver fern at the tournament in Mexico – playing against some of her Olympic team-mates.
New Zealand sit in division two pool B in the world rankings, and although they didn’t win a game in Mexico, they were competitive, Mills says. And New Zealand’s goalie (or goaltender in hockey parlance), Lilly Forbes, was the talk of the tournament – saving 93 percent of the shots fired at her.
The Ice Fernz women’s national team – ranked 31st in the world – have just returned from their division two pool B world championships in Iceland, where they won bronze.
Blong will be eligible to play for the Ice Ferns in 2022. Her North American playing season - which involves travelling across Canada or into the United States every weekend - has just come to an end. She’ll spend the off-season focusing on building muscle in the gym.
“I had a concussion just before the Olympics [she’s had a few in her career] so I missed out on a lot of gym. The girls here are really strong, so that's my short-term focus now,” she says.
Blong followed another Kiwi into the Ontario Hockey Academy. Grace Harrison, a goaltender from Auckland, went on to become the first New Zealander to win an ice hockey scholarship to a US division one school – and one of the finest players we've produced.
In February last year, she was named the US goalie of the month, playing for St Lawrence University in New York. She’s now living and playing back in Auckland.
Blong is uncertain whether she will ever get to play ice hockey at the Winter Olympic Games.
“New Zealand is in the lowest division right now, so we’ve got a long way to go. But it would be cool,” she says.
“But I know this could have been my one and only shot at an Olympics. And I won a medal at it.”
A unique medal, that's safely tucked away back in Auckland with Mum and Dad.