Dropping down into Angela Ruggiero’s life is like falling into a whirlwind. Something is happening every minute.
At one time the best defenseman in women’s hockey, the 2004 Harvard graduate is a four-time Olympian and a four-time world champion who piled up enough athletic accomplishments in her 16-year career to stock the shelves of an entire team. Ruggiero was 15 when she joined the US team, and an 18-year-old high school senior when the US won gold in Nagano; she played 256 games for the US, more than any player in the sport’s history. Now 33 and retired from hockey, she’s back at Harvard, studying for her master’s at the business school. The California native considers Boston home.
Since her election to the International Olympic Committee’s Athletes’ Commission in 2010, Ruggiero has been traveling the world as an ambassador for international sport. It’s a journey that has seen her taking tea and talking politics with a Buddhist monk in South Korea, dressing up in high heels, pearls, and a fancy over-the-top Philip Treacy hat for the wedding of fellow IOC member Prince Albert of Monaco, mentoring young athletes at the Youth Olympics in Innsbruck, and chatting with the Queen at Buckingham Palace about — what else, sport.
“These are the kinds of things I can’t believe I get to do,’’ said Ruggiero, restored to the student uniform of jeans and sweatshirt as she sipped coffee this week at a Harvard Square coffee shop. Her blue eyes blaze with passion as she talks about the possibilities sport can bring to young athletes.
Ruggiero has gobbled up every opportunity she encountered, from a scholarship to prep school in Connecticut when she was 14, to a stint on the television reality show “The Apprentice,’’ to her studies in government at Harvard. Now that she has a voice on the world stage, she is determined to use it.
“My actions can have real implications on athletes and they’re the ones that elected me,’’ she said.
“I feel very strongly about this; I’m an athlete advocate right now in the world, as far as the IOC athletes’ commission and USOC. I’m always thinking about the athletes’ rights but at the same time, I think a lot about the athletes who don’t have the chance to be athletes. It’s two-tiered; there’s the elite athletes, and I understand them because I was one. I want to make sure their rights are represented and they’re not taken advantage of.
‘My actions can have real implications on athletes and they’re the ones that elected me.’
“But then I can’t get away from the pure opportunity that should be afforded to everyone, whether you’re a boy or a girl, or from the US or another country, wherever you’re from, whatever income level your parents are.’’
Ruggiero has multiple roles with the IOC as a member of the Athletes’ Commission, the Entourage Commission, the 2018 Pyongyang Games Coordination Commission, and she is chairman of the Lillehammer 2016 Winter Youth Olympic Games committee; she has a seat on the Board of Directors for the USOC and the Board of Directors of the World Anti-Doping Agency, and she is president of the Women’s Sports Foundation. All this while she is plowing through her first year at Harvard Business School, a notorious grind. She has so many titles and roles, it’s difficult to properly punctuate a sentence that lists them all.
USOC Chairman of the Board Larry Probst said, “Angela made an immediate impact when she joined our board in 2010 and she has been an integral member of our team in the three years since.
Having competed in four Olympic Games during her hockey career, she has a valuable perspective and natural leadership ability that have translated to her becoming a respected new voice in the Olympic Movement.’’
In 2007, Ruggiero demonstrated enough business savvy that Donald Trump pulled her aside after her dismissal from his TV show to offer her a real job. She turned him down. She didn’t know what it was then, but she knew there was something out there that was going to excite her as much as playing hockey.
Turns out it was trying to change the world through sport and it turns out she is as good a diplomat as she was an athlete. Name an organization trying to bring the opportunity to play sports to females anywhere around the world, and Ruggiero is likely to be involved.
And yet, she is still surprised every day when she wakes up and this is her life.
Ruggiero grew up in Simi Valley, Calif., and started playing hockey with her brother Billy when she was 9. Then her father lost his business and endured several years of unemployment. Paying hockey dues strained the family budget.
“My family was blue collar, we had no money, we struggled to pay the rent, just a typical struggling American family,’’ said Ruggiero. “And I happened to be good at sports and work hard at school. I just knew I wanted to do something. I thought it was hockey and thankfully my parents didn’t crush my dream and tell me that was impossible and they let me believe in my sport.’’
When the chance to attend Choate Rosemary Hall came up, Ruggiero recognized how much it could change her life. At 14, she left California and her family behind. Doors have been opening for her ever since.
“Because I was allowed to play sport,’’ she said, “I was allowed to flourish. I wouldn’t have had another vehicle.’’
Ruggiero wrote a memoir in 2005 about her hockey career and her path to Harvard because, as she noted, there are no women’s sports books.
“If I can’t see myself as a sports hero, then I’d never aspire to be that,’’ she said. “When I was 9 years old, I met Marty McSorley of the LA Kings and he became my idol, just because I met him.’’
Nine-year-old girls playing hockey today still can choose an NHL player as their hero, but they can also choose Ruggiero, especially after she and Hayley Wickenheiser this year became the first two playable female avatars on EA’s NHL 13 video game. She’s the hockey hero her 9-year-old self didn’t have.
Meanwhile, she is learning to blend her enthusiastic idealism with the delicate diplomacy of international sport. Representing the IOC in London last summer, Ruggiero draped the gold medal around the neck of an Iranian wrestler, then reached out to shake his hand and instead got a forearm. Startled, she managed to clasp the wrestler’s wrist for an awkward shake.
“Here I‘m thinking ‘This is awesome, this is what the Olympics are all about,’ ’’ Ruggiero said. “I’m thinking to the days when I was an athlete, trading hats and stuff with other athletes, just embracing the diversity of the athletes’ experience in the village.
“So I’m so excited and I’m thinking, here’s a meaningful moment: I’m an American, you’re an Iranian and I’m going to give you your gold medal.’’
Iranian culture prevented the wrestler from publicly touching a woman who was not a relative. Although Ruggiero respects his tradition, she is bold enough to wonder if there is room for those boundaries in the Olympic movement.
“At the very same time,’’ Ruggiero said, “every single country sent a woman [to the London Games], so there’s progress; even if it was ceremonial, it happened.
“By simply having women there from every country, there are now standards that have to be met, and expectations. A 10-year-old can see that athlete and say ‘I can be like her, I want to go to the Olympics’ and sport will slowly evolve that way. Society will slowly evolve.’’