When Abby Roque makes her Olympic debut next month, she'll also be making history as the first Native American woman to play on the U.S. hockey team at the Winter Games.
On this week's episode of the "My New Favorite Olympian" podcast from NBC Sports (listen below), Roque shared her journey that has led up to this moment.
Indigenous people face many cultural barriers — cost, accessibility, even prejudice — when it comes to getting involved in hockey. As a result, representation is low at the highest levels of the sport. But hockey actually has roots in Indigenous communities, and Roque grew up in a hockey town in Michigan where a significant portion of the population was Native American.
"I would probably say one in four, one in five people on my team were Indigenous growing up through high school," Roque said on the podcast. "When you look at the grand scheme of things for Indigenous people playing hockey in the U.S., the numbers are obviously a lot less than that. So growing up in Michigan and growing up playing hockey in that environment was obviously a really special thing."
Although her mother tried to get her into figure skating, Roque was drawn to hockey. She would often play with friends on the rink that her dad built in their backyard. When she started playing organized hockey, there were no teams for girls, so she played with the boys instead. In high school, she made the boys' team — as a freshman.
Her high school coach, John Ferroni, saw the potential Roque had and strived to create an environment where she wouldn't feel excluded. To that end, he had a locker room built for her that was next door to the rest of the team, and he gave her a stall in the main locker room so that she would be able to come in at a certain time and get the experience of hanging out with the rest of the team.
"I basically wanted to treat her just like a boy," Ferroni said. "You know, not have to do anything special for her one way or the other, to show her that you belong here as a hockey player."
Roque already had the rest of her career mapped out. When she was in seventh grade, she wrote a letter — which her dad still carries in his bag — that she was going to, among other things, play hockey at the University of Wisconsin and play in the Olympics.
She checked off one of those items by joining the University of Wisconsin's program, where she became one of the top players in women's college hockey and led the Badgers to a national championship in 2019.
And in just a few weeks, Roque will check off another item from that list. In January, the 24-year-old was named to the U.S. Olympic roster alongside stars like Hilary Knight, Brianna Decker and Kendall Coyne Schofield. She's set for a key role as Team USA looks to defend its Olympic title four years after winning the gold medal game against Canada in thrilling fashion.
In doing so, Roque will be able to provide inspiration for the next generation. Just as she was inspired by watching TJ Oshie, a fellow hockey player of Native American heritage, and his shootout heroics at the 2014 Games, Roque hopes that her presence can help get more female and Indigenous athletes involved in youth hockey.
"[My dad said], you should always want to help more people play hockey," Roque said. "And that is kind of what stuck with me from growing up where I did. You always want to help the game be better."
For the full story, listen to the podcast above. "My New Favorite Olympian" is the fourth season of the Sports Uncovered podcast from NBC Sports. New episodes drop every Wednesday and will introduce you to the most inspiring members of Team USA and the issues they champion. The series is hosted by eight-time Winter Olympic medalist Apolo Ohno and NBCLX storyteller Ngozi Ekeledo