Kalena Mueller had a tough decision to make.
A day before Mueller was set to try out for the San Jose Junior Sharks, a competitive travel hockey team, the Bay Area native learned she'd been accepted to the Ontario Hockey Academy in Cornwall, Ontario, a Canadian prep school that grooms promising athletes to play hockey at the next level.
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Mueller had dreamed of playing college hockey since her first game of roller hockey at age 13. Until that point in her life, she had been a soccer player, but she immediately fell in love with hockey. A few months later, she made the switch to the ice.
Given the opportunity to join a veritable college hockey player-producing factory, Mueller left California and headed north. But she was in Ontario for only two weeks before she had to return home.
"I got there and I was really excited. And the hockey was amazing," Mueller says. "But my family and I take school very seriously, and the academics there were not what I was used to."
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Mueller knew her studies had to take priority, but she still felt devastated after leaving Canada. "It was very hard," she says. "I thought [Canada] was my only chance of playing college hockey since I'd started with the sport at an older age."
Indeed, some hockey players are out on skates before their fifth birthday. Having started the sport in her teens, Mueller had a lot of catching up to do in terms of being fluid on the ice.
Upon returning to the U.S., rather than give up on her dream, Mueller rededicated herself, spending much of her free time at a local rink to hone her skating skills. She also started playing for a community team on which she was often the only girl on the roster.
"[Playing with the boys] was intimidating at first, but then I kind of proved myself and they all appreciated that I was there," Mueller says. "But it took some time for me to gain their respect."
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To make sure she was strong enough to hang with the boys, the 5-foot-4, 115-pound Mueller assembled a weight room inside her home. Today she trains there a minimum of three times per week, strengthening her legs and core with Squats, Deadlifts and plyometric exercises.
Mueller also got back in touch with the San Jose Junior Sharks, and they gave her another shot. She impressed the coaches, who made her part of the team. Last year, she was selected as a captain.
Today, the college dream Mueller had worried might be impossible is alive and well—more realistic than ever. She has already received interest from New England College and Becker College, and she's waiting to hear back from other schools where she has submitted applications.
Wherever Mueller lands, she wants to study sports management.
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While she waits and considers her college decision, Mueller continues to work on her game, particularly the offensive side. As a defensive player, she has been getting ice time at left wing, and she recently scored her first goal in a game.
Of her now very real prospect of playing college hockey, Mueller says, "It makes me happy because I know all my hard work is paying off. I love hockey so much. I want to continue to play."
Considering the effort she is putting in to get better, Mueller seems more than likely to make her college hockey dream come true.
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