Space Coast Iceplex’s Karina Villegas Overcomes Tragedy to Become World-Class Sled Hockey Player

By  //  August 28, 2020

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As a latecomer to Sled hockey, Coaches were dumbfounded at Villegas’ natural ability for the fast-growing sport

Growing up in Venezuela, Karina Villegas never really gave ice hockey much thought. The former open water swimmer was a young adult when a car driven by a Venezuelan government official ran her over, resulting in the amputation of her right leg.

A member of the Women’s National Para Ice Hockey Team, the 5-foot-6-inch forward helped the team take the championship against Canada in 2018

BREVARD COUNTY, FLORIDA – Growing up in Venezuela, Karina Villegas never really gave ice hockey much thought.

“We learned about hockey at school, but nobody played it,” said Villegas.

Fast forward a couple of decades and Villegas now knows a lot about hockey, particularly sled hockey, an extremely challenging form of the sport.

In fact, she is a star player for the Space Coast Blast, the area’s sled hockey team.

Designed by Swedish athletes with disabilities, sled hockey follows traditional hockey’s rules, but players sit on a tiny sled while propelling themselves through the ice using hockey sticks with metal pics. It’s fast, furious and for Villegas, lots of fun.

How does a girl from Venezuela end up as part of the USA Women’s Development Team?

A member of the Women’s National Para Ice Hockey Team, Karina Villegas, a 5-foot-6-inch forward, helped the team take the championship against Canada in 2018 and will be defending the title in September 2020 in Las Vegas. (USA Hockey image)

The former open water swimmer was a young adult when a car driven by a Venezuelan government official ran her over, resulting in the amputation of her right leg. The driver was drunk, speeding, and failed to stop at an intersection.

Villegas almost died because her femoral artery was cut. It did not stop her from swimming.

“In 1998, I became the first disabled athlete to swim long distance open waters marathons in my native Venezuela,” said Karina.

For training, she swam five kilometers to an island and back each weekend. She attempted to swim the junction of the Orinoco and Caroni Rivers, a dangerous endeavor.

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Villegas had to leave Venezuela because it was no longer safe for her to remain there. She emigrated to the United States, where she works in the nonprofit sector.

Sled hockey came into her life after her nine-year-old daughter, Mily, wanted to learn ice skating, so Villegas ferried her from their home in Sebastian to the IcePlex in Rockledge.

While Mily practiced skating, her mother discovered sled hockey. Coaches were dumbfounded at Villegas’ natural ability at the sport.

The U.S. Women’s Development Sled Hockey Team represents the United States in international competition and sled hockey has taken Karina Villegas around the world, from Nashville to Norway and from Puerto Rico to Sweden. (USA Hockey image)

At 45, Villegas is the “elder stateswoman” of the Blast, which counts players as young as 14. She is one of three female players.

Karina’s hockey career highlights include three Southeastern League titles with the Blast, 2018 and 2019 Tier III and IV National Championships at NHL Sled Classic with the Blast.

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A member of the Women’s National Para Ice Hockey Team, the 5-foot-6-inch forward helped the team take the championship against Canada in 2018 and will be defending the title in September 2020 in Las Vegas.

Sled hockey has taken her around the world, from Nashville to Norway and from Puerto Rico to Sweden.

Although Villegas knows her playing days will come to an end sooner than she would have wanted, she nevertheless plans to be back on the ice next season, having a blast with the Blast.

“It’s a lot of fun,” she said.

In its second season under full governance of USA Hockey, the U.S. Women’s Development Sled Hockey Team features 18 players, including nine forwards, six defensemen and three goaltenders. (USA Hockey image)
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FOR INFORMATION ABOUT the 2021 SPACE COAST SPORTS HALL OF FAME, call 321-323-4460 or 321-615-8111 or e-mail Contact@SpaceCoastDaily.com

CLICK HERE TO SEE MEMBERS OF THE SPACE COAST SPORTS HALL OF FAME

The Space Coast Sports Hall of Fame is located in the main athletic building on the Melbourne Campus of Eastern Florida State College. Portraits and biographies of the Hall of Famers are displayed on the wall in the building’s main hallway that runs parallel to the gym and outside the athletic department offices. Memorabilia items and related sports artifacts will be added to the display over time.

The Space Coast Sports Hall of Fame selection committee announced an impressive array of outstanding individuals to be inducted into the 2020 Class of the Hall of Fame.

The 2020 Space Coast Sports Hall of Fame Induction Banquet and Sports Awards, originally scheduled for Friday, May 8 at the Cocoa Beach Country Club, has been postponed due to COVID-19.

The 2020 Space Coast Sports Hall of Fame induction event, and the 2020 High School Breakfast of Champions recognition awards, are sponsored by Health First, Erdman Automotive, All Points, Clear Choice Health Care, Savings Safari, Friday Night Locker Room and Rock Paper Simple.

The Space Coast Sports Hall of Fame includes an impressive array of outstanding individuals to be inducted into the 2020 Class of the Hall of Fame.

Dozens of nominees were considered in four categories including professional sports, college sports, high school sports and amateur sports.

Special honorary recognition will also be bestowed upon individuals and teams that have made significant contributions to sports on the Space Coast.

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Space Coast Daily created the Space Coast Sports Hall of Fame in 2012 and has so far inducted more than 160 of Brevard County’s most outstanding athletes, coaches and sports personalities.

Serving on the committee are Space Coast Daily President & Publisher Tom Palermo, Vice President Giles Malone, Editor-in-Chief Dr. Jim Palermo, Managing Editor Zach Clark, the Friday Night Locker Room’s Steve Wilson and Orville Susong, former Health First COO Larry Garrison and Amateur Athletic Union Vice President Rusty Buchanan.

“The list of inductees for 2020 induction include athletes and coaches everybody knows – and some that may have been forgotten with the passing of time,” said Tom Palermo.

FOR INFORMATION about the Space Coast Sports Hall of Fame, or to make a nomination, e-mail Contact@SpaceCoastDaily.com or call 321-615-8111.

SPACE COAST DAILY TV: Tim Wakefield talks about his induction into the first class of the Space Coast Sports Hall of Fame.

SPACE COAST SPORTS HALL OF FAME CLASS OF 2020

• PROFESSIONAL CATEGORY INDUCTEES: Jamel Dean, Football; Hacksaw Jim Duggan, Wrestling; Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, Football; Mark Lake, Skateboarding; Juwaan Taylor, Football

• COLLEGE CATEGORY INDUCTEES: Derek Hamm, Football; Paulette King, Basketball; Dylan Lewis, Soccer; Melanie Murphy, Softball

• PREP CATEGORY INDUCTEES: Lexy Denaburg, Volleyball; Apryl Bigham Nickson, Swimming; Andi Sellers, Soccer

• AMATEUR/RECREATION CATEGORY INDUCTEE: Peter Blount, Track & Field; Karina Villegas, Sled Hockey; Caylor Williams, Wrestling

• COACHING CATEGORY INDUCTEES: Sean Ballard, Wrestling; Doug Butler, Cross County and Track; Aubin Goporo, Basketball; Gerald Hodgin, Football; Bill Sinclair, Softball; Don Smith, Basketball

• SPORTS DEVELOPMENT INDUCTEE: Loren McClanahan

• LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT INDUCTEE: Clint Hurdle

• SPORTS OFFICIAL INDUCTEES: Ted Ruta

• SPORTS JOURNALISM INDUCTEES: Steve Vaughn

• SPORTS AMBASSADOR AWARD INDUCTEE: Congressman Bill Posey

• CHALLENGER AWARDS INDUCTEES: Brevard Special Olympics

• TEAM OF THE YEAR: 2019 Satellite High Cross Country

• LEGACY CHAMPIONS: TBA

• SPECIAL TRIBUTE: TBA

CLICK HERE TO SEE THE MEMBERS OF THE SPACE COAST SPORTS HALL OF FAME

CLICK HERE FOR BREVARD COUNTY NEWS

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