Sandra Whyte Sweeney
While she collected a number of them, sport was never about medals, trophies and awards for Harvard's Sandra Whyte Sweeney. Her sporting memories instead focus on relationships and personal experiences.
Former Harvard women's hockey coach John Dooley has glowing praise for Sandra Whyte Sweeney's gifts as an athlete. He remembers her as one of the most outstanding players he ever watched and cites her ability to accelerate with the puck as the best of all the athletes -- women and men -- that he has coached. Yet his comments quickly turn to Whyte Sweeney's personality and the quality of her leadership as a teammate.
"Sandra led by example on and off the ice," he said. "She had an intense desire to excel and tremendous work ethic, but also the temperament to enjoy the game and especially her teammates."
When you speak with Sandra about her career it quickly becomes apparent that, for her as well, the relationships that developed around the games are just as important as the accomplishments that came during the games. During her Harvard career she was named Ivy League Player of the Year in both her junior and senior seasons, and was also the Ivy League Player of the Year in field hockey in 1990, her junior year.
That success continued after college as she was a member of six World Championship teams, as well as the 1998 U.S. team -- only U.S. team to have won Olympic gold -- for the inaugural women's ice hockey competition at the Games.
Yet while discussing these achievements, Whyte Sweeney's emphasis returns again and again to the friendships that she has made along the way. "I feel blessed that I have gotten to know so many incredible people through hockey," she said. "Some of my closest friends today were my teammates at Harvard. And one of the great things about participating in USA Hockey was getting to know my rivals. One of my closest friends from the Olympic team is Gretchen Ulion Silverman, a former rival at Dartmouth."
Her ability to appreciate her teammates has always been there. She remembers not being bothered about being the only girl on the team during her first few years of playing because in her mind she was just playing around with "her buddies."
As a collegian she became a 'go-to' player. During crunch time Dooley often called upon her to skate double shifts -- as a defender in tight games -- in addition to her regular position as a center. But Dooley also relied on his prolific goal-scorer in easy games, not to score more goals herself but to skate on lines with reserve players. During those times she would make it her mission to give players who rarely got opportunities to score goals the chance to contribute. As Dooley credits her, "she looked after everyone and made sure that everyone had fun."
After college Whyte Sweeney wasn't sure whether she wanted to pursue playing hockey or enter the "real world," so instead of deciding right away, she did both. After a brief stint at a "real job" Whyte Sweeney discovered an opportunity to play hockey on a club team in Switzerland during the winter of 1993-94. Calling it a semi-professional league, she says, would be generous.
She earned her room, board and spending money by living with a family and working as its au pair. Her team won the league championship, which was a bonus, but again Whyte Sweeney truly enjoyed her Swiss sojourn because of the relationships she developed. "The hockey was okay but the experience was great because of the family that I stayed with. They were wonderful people. And I thought it was so great that, through sports, I could go experience another culture."
By the time she returned from Switzerland the formal announcement had been made that women's ice hockey would be an event in the 1998 Winter Games and Whyte Sweeney had no doubt that she wanted to be a part of Team USA.
With the assistance of grants from the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), Whyte Sweeney was able to train full time beginning in 1996. "Instead of worrying about the Olympic team I just stayed focused on all of the stepping stones along the way. I knew that if I could be prepared and impress the coaches at each training camp and each tryout I was giving myself the best chance of making the team."
When she made the team for the 1997 World Championships she began to feel confident that her hard work would pay off with a trip to Nagano.
After helping the United States win gold (she scored two goals and had two assists during the run), Whyte Sweeney returned to life in the real world working as a research analyst for a pharmaceutical consulting firm. In 2000 she and her husband, John Sweeney -- also a hockey player at Harvard -- had their first child, a daughter. Whyte Sweeney has been a stay-at-home mother to her and now a little brother since.
As a way to give back and stay connected to the Olympic movement, Whyte Sweeney has participated in the USOC's Summit program, conferences that bring together gold medalists with medal hopefuls for the next Games to help them mentally prepare for the challenge.
These days her primary connections to hockey are as the head coach of the Reading, Mass., high school girls' team, and gently nudging her children to skate. She would love for them to develop a passion for something -- even other than hockey -- and have the opportunity to pursue it as she did. And, of course, the Crimson parents hope that they might choose to attend their alma mater.
"It makes Harvard a great place to have so many strong Division I sports programs, but at Harvard everyone is special whether it be in sports, music, academics or something else. That's what I loved about Harvard? the wonderful mix of people."
— Meredith Rainey Valmon