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Julia Sinople is a good hockey player, and a great kid. Thirteen, smart as a whip, and recently selected by USA Hockey as their Youth Player of the Month, Julia has been in skates for roughly half her life.

“I was playing on a boy’s team when I was little, and I shot the puck,” she recalls, laughing. “It wasn’t the best shot in the world. It just went right through the goalie’s five-hole, and I was so happy. I just remember that. I think that was my first goal.”

Sinople’s feet first met the ice in figure skates, but one look at her brother’s hockey gear changed her mind. A Chicagoland native, Sinople is now familiar with almost all the city’s suburbs and most of its rinks. Like most young female hockey players, she bounced between boys’ teams and travel teams, moving up in the levels to find competition that suited her skill.

20141128_110627“This year I started [with the Chicago Fury] and it’s a really awesome experience. The level of skill is so much higher than the travel [teams], and it’s just made me such a better hockey player,” Sinople says. “Girls are very competitive. They will really challenge you. I was surprised–they challenge me so much, and I feel like I’m just getting better every second I’m on the ice.”

And Sinople is on the ice a lot. With aspirations of playing D1 hockey, she knows she has to be. She’s been inspired by the U.S. Women’s Olympic team, Megan Bozek in particular after having the opportunity to meet her.

“She’s a big role model to me,” Sinople says. “It’s how she acts every time she gets on the ice. Every time she goes to practice, she works so hard. She’s given me a lot of advice, like skate your hardest and never give up and don’t be nervous before a game because your nerves will affect your play.” She laughs. “Just like, um, chill.”

It’s good advice, and Sinople seems to have taken it. Though she has the same speech patterns of any thirteen-year-old, her calm composure is impressive. She’s determined to talk about her work in local soup kitchens; in fact, it’s the only time that she truly takes over the conversation, her answers becoming more long-winded.

“The average age for a homeless person is nine years old,” she tells me, incredulous. “I feel like people don’t really know how many homeless people there are, or they have a bad view of them, like they did it to themselves, but sometimes it’s just like, life, you know? They’re smart people, they just … don’t have enough money.”

Giving back to the community matters a lot to Sinople, who also plays the violin in a local orchestra, called Strings of the Valley. Members span from the very young to the very old, and they play to audiences of seniors, veterans, and hospital patients.

“It’s a really great thing,” Sinople enthuses. Her Chicago accent thickens when she’s excited.

Between playing hockey and volunteering, Sinople makes plans. Having met players from the Sochi Olympic team, Sinople knows you can’t hope to get to that level without putting in the hours. For now, she has her eyes on college hockey, but after that, who knows?

image“I mean, everyone can see themselves there,” she acknowledges when I ask if she can imagine herself putting on the Team USA sweater. “But yeah, I can. I’ll try my best to get into a college team and then just … do my best from there. There’s a lot of tough competition now and the girl’s hockey community is really rising. And I know if I work hard enough and put my mind to it and do extra hours on the ice, with other things off the ice, I think I can pursue that goal.”

She pauses. When she speaks again, she sounds a little more hesitant, maybe knowing she’s poking at the elephant that lives in any female’s hockey player’s room. “Women’s hockey is very limited. There’s no professional league in a lot of countries like there are for men, and, well … after hockey, I can have a job that actually makes an income. That’s … another thing.”

It’s something of a surprise to hear a thirteen-year-old think that far ahead, but maybe it shouldn’t be. There’s no event like the Olympics to remind us all just how limited professional sports options can be for young girls with big dreams.

“I would really like to go to college and play D1 hockey,” Sinople picks up again, sounding determined. “I guess that’s every girl’s dream, but I’m really passionate about the sport. I’m willing to work the hardest to get to my goals. I can take sacrifices for those goals. I’m not the biggest risk-taker, but I will take risks to pursue them and never stop until the very last second.”

“I think I can make it there,” she says.

I think she can, too.

Molly is not an athlete. She quickly got used to winning the “Best Smile” award at her family's Summer Olympics (an award made up especially for her by her grandmother, who felt bad that she never won anything else). But as they say, "Those who cannot do, write about it from the sidelines and provide orange slices at half time."

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