Age is just a number for Finland's Riikka Valila
At 44, Riikka Valila isn’t just playing ice hockey, she’s doing it at the highest level for Finland. When Valila steps onto the ice for the first time in PyeongChang, she will officially become the oldest player to compete in women’s Olympic ice hockey.
She began playing ice hockey at age seven on an all-boys team. Like most young girls, she was just trying to keep up.
"I have two big brothers who played hockey and I wanted to do the same as them."
Fast-forward to the 1998 Nagano Games, Valila participated in the first Winter Olympics that featured women’s ice hockey. The forward led the tournament in scoring, totaling 12 points in six games. Finland finished with a bronze medal.
While third place is her team’s best finish in the Olympics, Valila earned plenty of individual recognition.
In 2010 she was inducted into the International Ice Hockey Federation Hall of Fame. At the time, she was only the fourth woman to receive this honor, and the first from outside of North America.
After stepping away from the game altogether in 2003, Valila returned to the sport in 2012 to coach a women’s team in Finland.
Somewhere along the line, coaching was not fulfilling enough and Valila returned to the ice. She regained her form and was selected to represent her country at the 2014 Winter Games.
Her involvement wasn’t just for show, in Sochi her goal against Russia made her the oldest female to score a goal at an Olympic Winter Games.
After Sochi, at 40 years old, Valila felt she wasn’t finished.
Valila reflected after the games, “I don't have to prove anything to myself or anybody else. I just enjoy playing. I really love to train, to improve my body and it's lots of fun to get the feeling that I am getting better on the ice and I can help the team.”
Even after decades of playing hockey, Valila still loves to train and practices once a day, if not twice with each session lasting two hours.
Now 44, the mother of three is ready to compete at her fourth Olympic Winter Games. She realizes she can’t take the accomplishment for granted.
"The Olympics is the event for us and every ice hockey player wants to be here. To be able to do it once again, to be able to do it in that age, I'm very thankful.”
Finland opens play against the United States in the preliminary round on Sunday. Puck drop is set for 2:40 a.m. ET.
Riikka isn’t just satisfied with playing in PyeongChang, her goal is to play until the 2019 World Championships in Finland and represent her country in her home land.