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Women’s Hockey Coach Doesn’t Let Lupus, or Anything Else, Get in the Way of Doing What She Loves

Sherri Long, Pittsburgh Puffins women's hockey head coach, was diagnosed with lupus at age 12, but she doesn't let her diagnosis or anything else, stop her from doing what she loves.

Sherri Long grew up in one of the best places to play hockey—Colorado Springs, Colorado (home of USA Hockey).

At age 10, after seeing the movie D2: The Mighty Ducks, she told her parents she was determined to be a hockey player.

“When I first started playing, there was nowhere for girls to play unless they played full-check hockey with the boys. This was not a problem for me – I have a very solid build and actually thrived on the physical play when I was a youth hockey player—but I knew many girls who were either discouraged from playing or were hurt playing boys’ hockey and were forced to quit playing because there were no other options for them,” she said.

Sherri didn’t quit. Her personality and playing style led her to fall in love with playing defense.

“My hockey mind and skill set both lend themselves to being a defender. I have learned to be disciplined in knowing when to hold back but am not at all afraid to step up and ‘fight to the death’ in the corners. In terms of personality, I am by nature fiercely protective, so having a protecting and enforcing role suits me,” she said.

In 1997, at the age of 12, Sherri was diagnosed with Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE) and her life changed completely after nearly dying several times.

“I feel that having an intimate understanding of mortality at such a young age gave me a unique perspective and appreciation for life. Luckily, though my particular case has been life-threatening and unpredictable, lupus is a condition that is relatively easy to control," she said. "I am closely monitored by a great team of physicians, so unless I am actively in the midst of having a flare or having a bad day, I consider myself to be just as healthy, or healthier, than your average person!”

Though many aspects of Sherri’s life changed after her lupus diagnosis, one thing stayed the same—she continued to play hockey.

“I never even considered allowing it to keep me from hockey!" she said. "My parents were incredible in that they were able to balance tough love with compassionate support, which basically meant that there was a zero-tolerance policy for wallowing in self-pity, and I instead was taught to take a proactive approach in setting myself up to have as normal of a life as possible without seeing lupus as something that would stop me from getting what I wanted out of life.”

As time went on, Sherri’s life continued to revolve around hockey as she played on a boys’ team and a girls’ U19 Tier 1 (AAA) team. At one point she was skating at least 9 times per week in multiple cities and travelling monthly to different states and Canada. During her first year on the U19 girl’s team, she didn’t play in many games, but still suited up and sat on the bench with everyone else, being supportive and cheering on her teammates. That year, the team qualified for a spot at the USA Hockey Girls Tier I U19 Nationals but Sherri, along with a few other teammates, were told that they wouldn’t be playing at all in the regional tournament. By the end of the tournament, the other teammates that were told they wouldn’t play were so frustrated that they had stopped showing up.

But Sherri showed up for every game and even though she did not play in one game in the tournament, her coach, who commended her display of commitment, heart, and dedication to improvement all season long, presented her with that season’s MVP award.

“This experience was one of the most profound of my hockey career, in that it taught me that attitude, character, and commitment to your team and the game itself off the ice is just as important as it is on the ice, if not more so,” she said.

Though she was recruited to play hockey by several schools with great athletic and academic programs, Sherri declined to play college hockey. In her senior year of high school, she had to have reconstructive surgery after blowing out her knee. The day she came home from the hospital following her surgery, she received an acceptance letter from Temple University to her dream academic program. She majored in Human Biology and was selected to be in the BA/MD Honors MedScholar Program, but realized later that despite her love for medicine, being a physician was not for her. She decided to pursue a career in Health Information Management and later entered the University of Pittsburgh’s MS Health Information Systems program. Sherri completed her graduate degree this past April, and was certified as a Registered Health Information Administrator in May. She is currently a Solutions Analyst at M*Modal, a health information technology company in Pittsburgh.  

In 2008, Sherri decided to become a certified hockey coach and began the USA Hockey Coaching Education Program. She continued to move up to different levels of coaching until she reached Level 4 Certification in 2011.

“I actually just sort of fell into coaching when I was a teenager working at an ice arena in Colorado Springs, after I was first asked to help out with the Learn to Skate Program. Eventually, I moved up through the ranks of being an assistant hockey camp counselor, then a junior/assistant coach. I am really big on having proper technique, so that tendency lent itself well to starting out by coaching specific drills and making a gradual move into coaching the overall game,” she said.

She has coached in some capacity for about 12 years and is going on her fifth year of being a head coach. Currently, she is in her second year as head coach of the Pittsburgh Puffins women’s hockey team.

“The thing I like about coaching adult women is that they have to sacrifice so much in order to commit to playing for a team. Hockey is an expensive sport. It’s hard to give up away-game weekends and every single Friday night (the Puffins practice on Friday nights) for the entire season, and many of the ladies on my team have families of their own, full-time jobs that sometimes require a lot of travel, and other “real life” obligations that obviously come before hockey. Yet, they still show up, give 100% effort, and are hungry for knowledge and skill. I remember playing youth hockey and having teammates that only played because their parents wanted them to, or because they were looking to get a hockey scholarship, so the difference in nature and level of commitment from the women I have the pleasure of coaching profoundly inspires me.”

Sherri still plays hockey every once in a while.

“I’m finally starting to come to grips with the fact that I won’t ever be able to play the way I used to. Even though my skills and knowledge base are fundamentally intact, I just can’t physically execute a lot of things I could when I was younger, prior to so many injuries and having sustained permanent damage from lupus flares. My stamina is much lower than your average person because I get short of breath so easily due to the inflammation. The hardest thing for me about playing though, aside from the pain of the aftermath, is the mental aspect. When I recall the way I used to be able to play and find my body doesn’t always respond to what my brain tells it to do, I get really frustrated and down on myself. I am trying to get better about that, and hope I can play regularly one day, but if not, that’s okay because coaching is so fulfilling,” she said. 

Hoping for a cure someday, Sherri does what she can to support lupus advocacy and research. She participates as a patient in research studies and trials, and was a volunteer with the Lupus Foundation of America when she lived in the Philadelphia area. Until a cure is found, she’s not going to let lupus get in the way of living her life to the fullest, including coaching hockey. 

“At this point, I would just love to coach the Puffins for as long as I am able. Especially considering my new career and health considerations, I am learning to be at peace with adapting to things as they come! I could potentially see myself being interested in coaching at the college level, or someday if I have children who play hockey, maybe coaching one of their teams.” 

For more information on lupus advocacy and research, please visit the Lupus Foundation of America website at www.lupus.org

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

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