The Wall Street Journal
A 31-year-old Californian once fired by Donald Trump during a reality-television apprenticeship, Ruggiero is one of the best female hockey players ever. As a member of the U.S. Olympic team, she’s medaled in the last four Winter Games. As part of her bid to make it to a fifth Games, she helped Team USA win the 2011 world championship in Switzerland last month, beating arch-rival Canada 3-2 in overtime in the finals.
Ruggiero has built a reputation as an unmovable force on the American blue line. But for the U.S. Olympic movement, her biggest victory could come in the more delicate art of diplomacy in the years ahead. She was chosen last year by her fellow competitors as one of 12 elected members on the International Olympic Committee’s athlete’s commission, a highly influential post rarely occupied by Americans. The eight-year appointment also makers her an IOC member.
It couldn’t have happened at a better time. For years the U.S. Olympic Committee and the IOC have been seething at each other, mainly because of a bitter fight over the billions of dollars the U.S. brings to the Olympics through T.V. rights – NBC paid about $2 billion to air the 2010 and 2012 Games – and sponsorship deals with U.S. companies. The USOC keeps 12.75% of the money paid by American broadcasters, and 20% of sponsorship money. The rest goes to the European-dominated IOC.
The U.S. thinks that’s unfair and wants a bigger share; the IOC sees the U.S. as greedy, and has refused to budge.
The dispute boiled over in October 2009, when Chicago was bidding to host the 2016 Summer Games. Chicago’s bid was resoundingly rejected in the first round of voting. The debacle led to a shake-up at the USOC. In came a new chief executive, Scott Blackmun, who has made mending fences with the IOC a top priority while working to cut a new revenue deal.
A month after Blackmun’s arrival, Ruggiero was elected to the athlete’s commission, and suddenly the USOC had a new resource high within the IOC itself. In a rare break while training for the world championships, Ruggiero said she’s aware of the situation the commission seat imposes on her. “The USOC and the IOC,” she explained, holding her hands in the air three feet apart, “are like this.”
Since then, Ruggiero has traveled the world representing the U.S. She visits Switzerland once a month and has parachuted into Singapore, Dubai and Munich. The jet-setting seems to be paying off. Last September she was named to the IOC committee evaluating sites for the 2018 Winter Games. Several weeks ago, as the athlete’s commission was choosing a location for its quadrennial forum scheduled for this fall, Ruggiero presented the USOC’s pitch for Colorado Springs, Colo., and prevailed.
“Angela is in a position to play a very important role for us,” Blackmun said in a telephone interview. “She is a unique combination of intellect and athletic ability, and she’s going to be operating in a lot of circles in the Olympic family.”
Bringing the athlete’s commission to the USOC’s home in Colorado Springs is also a big win in the world of Olympic politics. The event will be the first major Olympic gathering hosted by the U.S. since the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Games, and top IOC officials, including president Jacques Rogge, are expected to attend.
On the ice, Ruggiero is a rugged defender who doesn’t shy away from body contact, even though women’s hockey doesn’t allow checking. “Her role is definitely to be a physical presence and get under our skin,” said Tessa Bonhomme, a member of the Canadian women’s team who’s tangled with Ruggiero for years. “And she’s definitely their most valuable trash-talker.”
Encouraged by her father in the early ’90s, Ruggiero began playing hockey on boys’ teams in southern California, enduring the checks and barbs that were aimed at “the girl.” Later, she played on select girls’ teams and was offered a scholarship to play at a prep school in Connecticut. At 17 she made the U.S. Olympic team and played in the Nagano Games in 1998. When she returned to school, a gold medal hung from her neck.
Ruggiero then played at Harvard, won a national championship and the women’s hockey equivalent of the Heisman, and left with a degree in government. After the 2006 Olympics, she appeared on “The Apprentice” and lasted 10 episodes before Trump fired her.
The Donald was impressed, though. After the taping, he called her to his office and offered her a real job. This time she rejected Trump. “It was a great opportunity, and would have been a great transition into business,” Ruggiero said. “But I love hockey and wanted to keep playing.” (Trump confirmed the account. Through a spokeswoman, he said Ruggiero “is an incredible athlete and incredible person. She has a great future no matter what she does.”)
Ruggiero said she’s determined to play in a fifth Olympics, but the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, are still three years away and younger, faster players are on the rise.
“Ange is a rock,” said Katey Stone, the U.S. coach. But Sochi, she noted, “is still a long way off. You need 100% commitment at this level.”
Ruggiero’s IOC schedule doesn’t make things easy. “I have a road workout – one-leg squats, core abs, tuck jumps, interval training on the bike,” she said. But that’s not the same as getting on the ice. She did bring her skates on a Switzerland trip in March, but never took them out of her bag.
As for bringing the Games back to the U.S., that’s a ways down the road. Blackmun said the USOC has had “fruitful” in-person meetings with IOC representatives on the matter, but declined to speculate on when an agreement over how to divide television money could be reached. Until one is hammered out, the U.S. won’t make any bids to host. That means the soonest the Games could realistically return to U.S. soil is 2020.
Ruggiero has time, though. She’s got plenty more time in her IOC job and she thinks she’s up to helping her country back to a place of greater influence. “I’m a multi-tasker. I love to have a lot of things going on,” she said. After pause, she added, “I see how important it is if the United States is ever going to host the Olympics again.”