December 10, 1998
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HARVARD GAZETTE ARCHIVES

Golden Skates

Scoring sensation, Olympic medalist A.J. Mleczko '99 rejoins a power-packed Crimson squad

By Peter Guiney
Special to the Gazette


A.J. Mleczko '99 returns to Harvard after taking two years off to train with the United States National Team. She went on to win a gold medal at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. On resuming life as a student-athlete, Mleczko says with good humor, "There hasn't been an adjustment playing hockey, it's hockey that's keeping me sane. The real adjustment is in the academics." Photo by Tim Morse.

It isn't very often that an athlete experiences the pinnacle achievement in his or her sport, then returns to school for one final year of competition.

But it's happening this year on the women's ice hockey team, as senior co-captain A.J. Mleczko has returned to Harvard, after winning a gold medal in the inaugural women's ice hockey tournament at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan.

A.J. (Allison Jamie) began her first stint in Cambridge in the fall of 1993, after spending four years at the Taft School in Watertown, Conn. In her first three years skating for the Crimson, Mleczko was recognized as the greatest player in the history of the program, becoming Harvard's all-time leading scorer with 92 goals and 52 assists for 143 points. She was the Ivy League and ECAC Rookie of the Year, and a two-time First Team All-Ivy League selection. In the fall of 1996, she decided to leave Harvard to train with the United States National Team, in hopes of making the Olympic Team for the 1998 Games. It was not an easy choice.

"At the time it was the toughest decision I had ever been faced with," says Mleczko. "Now it's almost funny to me to think back at how much I stressed over it. Looking back, there really was no other choice."

The difficulty hinged on the fact that she had no guarantee of making the Olympic Team. Head Coach Ben Smith, Harvard class of 1968, offered no assurances to any of the players who left school to be a part of this pioneering movement. However, Mleczko made the team - and experienced the greatest moment in her hockey career - a 3-1 win over Canada in last February's gold medal game.

"I think that even if I hadn't made the team, I would feel the same way, because the experience I had training and working so hard was so special," she says. Now that she is back at Harvard, things are just a little bit different for the 5'11" face-off specialist. Gone are the days of training, skating, and lounging in hotel rooms. She has returned to the classroom.

"Last year, we had one goal, one thing that we were all working for, but this past weekend, I realized that I had a mid-term that I needed to study for," mused a tired Mleczko on the plane ride back from a two-game sweep in Minnesota to kick off this season. "I am used to filling up my life with all hockey stuff, but now I have to distribute my time evenly.

There haven't been many changes on the ice, however. Mleczko is one of three Olympians on the Harvard team. Freshmen Angela Ruggiero and Jennifer Botterill played for the United States and Canada, respectively. Three other skaters return after scoring 50 or more points for the Crimson in 1997-98. To start the season, the then No. 5-ranked Crimson captured the East/West Challenge Championship with victories over host University of Minnesota, 3-1, and Mankato State, 10-0. Mleczko netted two goals and four assists on the trip, including an empty-netter against Minnesota to ice the game. What should come as little surprise is that it is hockey that is helping her during her second stint in Cambridge.

"If I weren't playing hockey, I don't think that I would feel like a Harvard student, because I would take the 'T' into school, go to class, then go home," says the history concentrator.

"There hasn't been an adjustment playing hockey, it's hockey that's keeping me sane," she jokes. "The real adjustment is in the academics."

Many of her Olympic teammates decided to forego their college eligibility in order to reap the benefits of stipends, endorsements, and appearances, but for Mleczko it was never an option.

"There's never been a question of 'Why am I doing this?' I am definitely happy that I am back at Harvard and there's never been a time when I questioned my decision. People ask 'What if you get injured? Will it be worth it?' or, 'Won't you be devastated if that happens?' Absolutely not, that's the risk you take, and the one thing that I've learned over the last two years is that risk-taking is so important to happiness and satisfaction."

At a school where being the best is commonplace, Mleczko has upped the ante with her gold medal at the 1998 Winter Olympics. What makes her special, however, is that she is still trying to understand the magnitude of her accomplishment.

"It crosses my mind everyday, but I'm not sure that the impact of its significance has hit me yet," she says. "I'll have people hold the medal and so many people are amazed and say 'This must be the greatest thing in your life,' and it is, but I look at it knowing that I also have the memories. I earned it and, whether or not I have the actual medal, I'll still be an Olympic medalist."

A.J. Mleczko has accomplished her many goals by hard work, commitment, and sacrifice. Taking two years off from Harvard was no walk in the park, but she has returned and has embraced the challenge of becoming a student-athlete once again. After she graduates this spring (Mleczko has already walked with her class), she will begin to focus on playing in the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.

No matter what happens there, Mleczko has left her mark on Harvard and on women's ice hockey. When her collegiate career ends in March, there is no doubt she will be considered the greatest Crimson skater of all time.

 


Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College