Most student athletes at Brown have to carefully balance their schoolwork and the meetings, practices and road trips that make up Division I athletics. But women's ice hockey player Alena Polenska '13 has to balance those commitments with another huge role — serving as captain of her national team.
Polenska, a native of Kutna Hora, Czech Republic, is the captain of the Czech Republic's Olympic development team, a team preparing for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Qualifications for the tournament begin next spring at the World Championships, but Polenska and the squad are already beginning to practice as a group in hopes of eventually making it to Russia.
Polenska left Providence on Tuesday to attend a training camp in Slany, Czech Republic, before traveling with the team to play in the Four Nations Tournament. She will miss two weeks of school.
"It's the start of the new team — the Olympic development team," she said.
Polenska was named captain of the team earlier this year. She said the national team's head coach, Karel Manhart, used to hint at the possibility of her becoming a team leader.
"Sometimes he would mention, ‘When we name you captain' and stuff, but I sort of didn't pay attention to it," she said.
And when the day came, Polenska was not even aware it had happened.
"One day, he e-mailed me, ‘How does it feel to wake up and know that you're captain?' But I didn't even know because I wasn't home and couldn't check the website," she said.
But the national team's assistant coach James Craig said he knows why the decision was made.
"She's just a natural leader," he said. "Probably the biggest thing is where she goes in her mind when faced with challenges — she tends to gravitate to positive solutions and she has the ‘What can I do to help?' kind of attitude."
Polenska was only 13 years old the first time she played for the women's national team. At the time, the country did not have an under-18 women's team, so talented players like Polenska were thrust right into the adult squad.
Craig said the experience makes her an invaluable asset to the team.
"She's been on the team since there was one, since she's been age-eligible," he said.
"Our most immediate goal is the establishment of a team, and that's where Alena comes into the picture and why she was named captain," he continued. "We probably text each other every day and come up with solutions and brainstorm. Our biggest thing is our actual team-building."
But Polenska is also a key member of the Brown women's hockey team. Last year, she finished tied for second in goals scored on the team with five in her freshman season. Though Polenska's national and college commitments sometimes interfere — she will miss three Bears games on her trip this month — her college teammates are fully supportive of her.
"It's a great opportunity for Czechie," said tri-captain Erica Kromm '11. "We would never want to hold her back from anything like that."
"The team kind of makes up for other players if they're not there or having an off day," added tri-captain Jenna Dancewicz '11. "That's the great thing about the team — everybody's picking up for each other."
Of course, there is also schoolwork to worry about. When asked how she manages to keep up with her classes, Polenska laughed and said, "That's what I'm wondering, too."
"I met with my teachers, and I met with my dean," she later said. "My teachers have all been helpful so far. They're willing to accommodate."
While Polenska, who is undecided about her concentration, may have laughed off the question about her studies, Craig said he knows she takes her work seriously.
"We have players that complain about (studying and playing), but Alena never complains about it," he said. "She gets excited about it, and it's not like she's just going to a school — she's going to a difficult school, one of the best universities in the country, so she obviously has an academic responsibility as well."
"I get calls from her at times that equate to 3 or 4 in the morning her time, when she's walking home from the library," he added.
On the ice
Polenska has been playing hockey competitively since around the age of five, and she has been skating for even longer.
"I had these sandals with two blades on it, and you put it over your shoe," she said. "So I was making my first steps on the ice when I was 1."
In the 19 years since, she has developed into quite the dangerous player.
"She's a power forward, a strong, stable skater," Craig said. "She's very fast — faster than she thinks she is."
Her teammates at Brown agree.
"The most important thing about Czechie is she's a very consistent player," Kromm said. "She's confident with the puck and knows when to hold on to it and when to pass it away."
"She's a very smart player," Dancewicz said. "She gets into the right spots, and she has a great shot, a little snap in her wrist."
That snap shot helped Polenska make what she calls her greatest memory as a member of the national team. At the 2008 under-18 world championships in Calgary, the Czech squad rallied to defeat Germany in a quarterfinal game on its way to a surprising bronze-medal finish.
"We were down by one or two goals, and we came together as a team and scored 0.8 seconds before the end of the game," Polenska said.
What Polenska initially failed to mention was that she was the player who scored that last-second goal.
"Oh, yeah, it was me," she laughed, when asked to identify the goal-scorer.
"We were going into a face-off, and the (other) kid won it — a great job from her," she said. "I skated a bit and shot it in between the circles. It hit the crossbar and went in, so we sort of didn't even know it was a goal. And then everybody started going crazy."
Polenska said the game was a big turning point for the team.
"It was amazing because when we were going into worlds, our team was thinking, ‘Oh, I hope we don't get relegated,' " she said. "But I think after the Germany game we really thought we could do it."
Looking to the future
Polenska is aware of the tough road her team faces on its path to Sochi. The squad must finish first in its division at the World Championships next spring to make it to Olympic qualifications. If the team fails, it is relegated to a pre-qualification tournament, which it would have to win just to make it to the qualifying rounds.
"It's a longer process," Polenska said of the latter option.
But Polenska hopes the Olympic qualifying ordeal is just the beginning of her hockey career.
"A lot of people stop after college, but I don't really want to do that," she said.
She said she definitely hopes to play in the 2018 Olympics, and she is also looking ahead to professional opportunities.
"I know they're trying to start a professional women's league to keep women's hockey in the Olympics," she said.
And if that league doesn't pan out, she'll try her hand in men's competition.
"One of my goals is to try to play men's hockey for a bit," she said. "Play second or third league somewhere. It would still be a good level, and playing with men makes you better because they're stronger."
And it all comes full circle. Because of the dearth of opportunities for women's players, Polenska said she's content with juggling three tasks — leading her national team, helping the Bears improve on last season's disappointing record and obtaining her college degree.
"As a female hockey player, there's not much chance you can make money playing hockey," Polenska said. "That's why we all go to school and try to get a good education."