CHICAGO - Every Wednesday at the Chicago Park District's McFetridge Sports Center on the city's Northwest side, nearly two dozen athletes practice a brand of hockey uniquely fit for them.
The Rehab Institute of Chicago began its sled hockey team in 1999 through RIC's Adaptive Sports Program and the support of Chicago Blackhawks Charities. Anyone with a physical disability is allowed to play, free of charge.
The RIC Blackhawks are split into two teams: a traveling, competitive squad that finished second in the country last year, and a developmental team for anyone wishing to learn how to play the game.
The sport started in 1960s Sweden and is known as "sledge" hockey overseas. Players sit in a bucket with the blade on the bottom of the sled. They use two sticks instead of one to pass and score, with metal picks attached to the ends of the sticks to help propel down the ice.
The RIC Blackhawks have some of the best sled hockey players in the world, like 17-year-old Brody Roybal and 28-year-old Erica Mitchell.
Roybal, who was born without legs, was the youngest athlete to win gold at the 2014 Sochi Paralympics playing on the Men's Sled Hockey National Team.
"Unexplainably wild," Roybal describes the thrill of winning Paralympic gold. "Being the youngest person at the Paralympics to go and be able to represent my country was an awesome feeling."
Mitchell was born with sacral agenesis, a congenital disorder affecting her spine and forcing her to rely on a walker to get around. She has been participating in sled hockey since she was 10 and is now the captain of the U.S. Women's National Team--a team she helped start a few years ago when the sport was predominately male dominated.
"It's pretty awesome, probably one of the greatest feelings ever," Mitchell says of playing for the national squad. "Playing with this group of girls who are the best in the U.S. is a lot of fun."
Mitchell is the only girl on the RIC Blackhawks, but considers herself "one of the guys."
It's all part of an environment nurturing equality and overcoming the odds.
"They are determined to push through and show that their ability is there and persevere through whatever comes their way," said RIC Blackhawks coach Derek Daniels. "[They want to] show that through sport just like everybody else wants to.
For more on the RIC Blackhawks and joining the team, visit their website at http://www.ric.org/services/sports-and-fitness/sports-programs/hockey/