There’s no mincing words: Jamie Benassi is a sled hockey phenom, which is ironic, because just a few short years ago, she had zero interest in watching, playing, or even thinking about hockey. In fact, she says, “I thought it was the stupidest thing ever.”
Her parents tended to agree: Benassi’s mom, Allison, is a Miami, Florida, native who knew little about the sport; her dad, Tom, “thought hockey took up too much time on SportsCenter,” says Allison. So when Benassi first met Renee Loftspring, coach of the co-ed Cincinnati IceBreakers sled hockey team, none of them thought much of it. In fact, it took Loftspring several tries to even get Benassi, who was born with caudal regression and sacral agenesis (essentially, she says, part of her spine is missing), to agree to watch a practice.
But everything changed the first time then–10-year-old Benassi visited the ice rink at Evendale’s Sports Plus. Somehow, Loftspring convinced her to suit up during the practice she was just supposed to watch, strap into a sled—a sleek sort of seat with two giant ice blades on the bottom—and head out onto the ice with the other IceBreakers players. As Tom told a WCPO reporter in 2019, his daughter emerged from that first practice a different kid. “Dad,” he recalls her saying, “I have a sport.”
Today, Benassi—long blond locks spilling out from beneath a black hockey helmet—handles the ice like a pro, dodging and weaving, passing the puck to teammates, stealing it back from the opposition and speeding around the full-sized rink with a stick in each hand. (Sled hockey sticks are one-quarter the size of regulation sticks and are used in pairs.) “I’m a little embarrassed to say that, since attending that one practice, I haven’t been off the ice,” Benassi says in a video on the Cincinnati IceBreakers’ homepage.
All that practice has paid off. In 2021, Benassi was invited to attend the U.S. Women’s Development Sled Hockey Team camp and earned a spot on the team; in 2022, she played with that team in her first international Para ice hockey competition and even brought home some hardware. Now, Benassi’s parents attend every hockey game they can, Allison helps manage the IceBreakers, and Tom helps transport and maintain their equipment. “I don’t know what we would do without hockey,” says Allison, reflecting on her daughter’s whirlwind climb to the top women’s Para hockey team in the nation. Maybe SportsCenter, they’d all admit today, was on to something after all.
In many ways, Benassi is a typical American teen. She lives with her parents in a suburban Newtown home, has a dog (a dachshund, named Tangerine), attends classes at Turpin High School (she’s a senior), and is fully armed with a cell phone. But in other ways that have little to do with her physical condition, she’s not much like her 18-year-old peers at all. It starts with the silver heart necklace she wears, with two crossed hockey sticks inside. She also manages a more complex schedule than most, including playing for both the IceBreakers and the U.S. Women’s Development Team as well as taking additional nursing/health technology classes at Live Oaks. She already has her STNA certification and hopes to pursue a nursing degree after high school, noting, “I’ve always wanted to work in the medical field; I was in hospitals a lot growing up.”
There are no other local sled hockey teams, so from September through April, Benassi practices once weekly with the IceBreakers and travels on weekends to places like Michigan, Indiana, and Chicago for tournaments (roughly four or five per year). She also devotes an additional long weekend once each month to the U.S. Women’s Development Team practices and games, too, but those are always out of town, so that means she misses one or two school days each time.
What truly makes Benassi stand apart from the crowd is her drive, something that’s defined her since she was born. That’s when doctors told her parents she’d never walk. But today, save for long distances, where she uses a wheelchair, “I walk every day,” says 18-year-old Benassi. “When I was younger, I used a walker and wore leg braces.” Once she figured out how to walk unassisted, “basically I haven’t needed any of that since then. I was good.”
She has tackled the sport of sled hockey with the same tenacity. “Initially,” she says, “I was just doing it for fun.” But when the IceBreakers shut down during COVID, Benassi realized how much she loved the sport. Before long, she figured out that coach Duane Weber was still running practices with the Indy Steel sled hockey team. “So every Saturday,” she says, “my parents would drive me up there to practice.” Interestingly, she adds, “that’s when I really started to see the improvement.”
By then, at roughly 15 years old, Benassi “knew about the women’s [Development Sled Hockey] team” and set her sights on earning an invitation to try out. (Men have had a Paralympic hockey team for decades; women hope to have one of their own by 2030.) “I started training harder, working out more, conditioning [and] working with a performance coach, Aaron Slusher, for strength and conditioning training. I had never been in a gym before, so that was kinda scary,” she says.
She also credits her experience on co-ed teams and suffering through some tough losses with helping prep her for the rigors of high-level sled hockey. “It’s not a great confidence booster to be losing, like, every game,” says Benassi, “but eventually you have to realize you’re getting better, no matter what—win or lose.”
Finally, in the summer of 2021, at age 16, Benassi became the first female IceBreakers player, and one of roughly 30 women nationwide to attend the official tryouts for the U.S. women’s team at a women’s sled hockey camp in New Jersey. Benassi had no expectations of making the team—”I was kinda going out to see where I stood,” she says—but quickly realized that “I could actually compete with most of them.” Even so, “when they called and said they’d like to have me on the team, I was like: What the heck just happened?” says a euphoric Benassi today. When the Turpin principal found out, he gave her a shout-out back home at an all-school pep rally.
Among the many perks of being on the U.S. women’s team are the opportunities to travel to places like Phoenix, Arizona; Nashville, Tennessee; and Ft. Wayne, Indiana. “I travel without my parents when I have the women’s hockey practices and training camps,” says Benassi, “which I love.” There are also a handful of girls her age on the team. “The friends I make is the best part,” says Benassi, noting that even “the older women love to hang out with us, too. They’re all just great people.”
Benassi’s initial response to an interview request for this piece speaks volumes about her skill and confidence: “The Women’s Sled Hockey World Challenge is in a bit under two weeks (August 23–28) so I think that it would be cool to schedule the interview for after this so that I will hopefully have the gold medal!!”
Sure enough, as promised, she returned from Wisconsin with an honorary cheese head, a candle, a Player of the Game award for scoring her first ever goal in an international game against the UK, and a gold medal, roughly half the size of her head, hanging from a thick blue ribbon.
“They’ve had world championships in the past,” says Benassi, who notes the women’s team also won gold in both 2014 and 2018. “But this year was the biggest world championship and the first sanctioned under World Para Ice Hockey.” It’s a first step, she adds, to getting women’s sled hockey recognized as an official Paralympic sport, a process that will take several more years to complete.
The event itself was something from a dream—two whirlwind days of practices, drills, and studying plays; a tour of the largest suite in Lambeau Field; and games against a European team, Great Britain’s team, and Canada’s team, twice.
Benassi, who’d played defense for the IceBreakers, has been playing forward for the women’s team and scored her first goal in the final matchup against Great Britain. “I’m good at aiming at the goalie and not at open net,” says Benassi, so “everyone scored before I did.”
The reason she was so confident about the team’s prospects for winning gold in the final game against Canada? “They had just had tryouts a few months prior,” says Benassi, “and they had eight rookies on their team this year. It was hard for them because a lot of their older players left. We were better than them for sure.” The final score was U.S. 5, Canada 1.
With nursing school on the horizon, will Benassi keep playing hockey? “I definitely don’t want to stop any time soon,” she says. “I want to continue with the women and keep growing with the sport.” She’s also happy to continue playing on co-ed teams, too, which is a good thing since, as Benassi’s mom points out, there aren’t a ton of women playing this sport yet. Benassi is hopeful fellow IceBreaker Rachel Steffen will soon make the U.S. women’s team as well.
Looking back on how much sled hockey has changed her life, Benassi offers advice to anyone considering taking a risk on something new. “I was terrified to play hockey and was just kind of thrown out there to do it…and now I’m here,” she says. “You have to let go of the fear and try something new. Find what you like and what your passion is, and that will get you places.”