Gretchen Ulion Silverman was always going to be a teacher.
“I come from a family of many teachers,” Silverman says. “My mom’s a teacher, many aunts and uncles are teachers. It came pretty naturally.”
Silverman teaches Algebra I and II at Taft, courses that students typically take early in their academic careers. For some, Algebra I represents their first introduction to high school mathematics.
“Many of these kids come into my classroom as reluctant math students; they find math intimidating,” says Silverman. “The work I did early in my career around learning differences and learning styles helps me recognize patterns in their struggles. I can say, “Your brain is processing this math so quickly that you’re already two steps ahead and your pencil is back here. Let’s find a method to connect them.’ I think that gives students a more concrete way to problem solve.”
Silverman believes that finding a path through—the ability to look at obstacles as building blocks and not roadblocks—is what makes students successful while building confidence and self-esteem.
“When you learn things easily, they don’t stick—that’s been scientifically proven. The learning process is all about obstacles. What we learn by navigating them can shape how and what we achieve.”
The obstacle principle that lies at the heart of Silverman’s personal pedagogy may be rooted in science, but in her own life, experience has been the best teacher. Silverman is an elite athlete with an Olympic gold medal. She was a member of the first US Women’s Olympic Hockey Team and scored the first goal in the first women’s gold medal hockey game ever played on Olympic ice. In November of 2019, Silverman and her teammates were inducted into the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame, where they shared the stage with some of the most notable names in sports history. It’s the stuff dreams are made of; it didn’t come easy.
Learning to Fly
With two older brothers and two older sisters, Silverman had plenty of options when her mother sent her to the hand-me-down bin to choose her first pair of ice skates.
“I came up with boys’ hockey skates,” Silverman recalls. “I was a tomboy and had no interest in my sisters’ white figure skates.”
Silverman was four at the time, and ready to join her family on the pond in their neighborhood. What she wasn’t ready for was “Mom and Me” figure skating classes.
“I hopped out on the ice and started racing around in circles. The teacher told my mom that my hockey skates weren’t going to work. We were kicked out pretty quickly—apparently, I was not a good fit for the program.”
For the next few years Silverman was, she says, a “rink rat,” soaking up everything she could while watching her brother play in the local youth hockey league. She was also counting the days until she turned six, the minimum age at the time for league players.
“One day at the rink I turned to my parents and said, ‘When I’m six, I’m going to play hockey, right?’ It was 1977. There were no little girls on the ice. This was around the time of Title IX, so when my parents approached the organization, they knew that they couldn’t say no based on my gender. What they did say was something like, ‘Well, if you want to put your little girl in harm’s way…’ My parents said, ‘She’s the youngest of five, she’ll be fine.’ So when the next season started, I started in the Mite program.”
On the ice, Silverman was embraced by the players and coaches. She could skate as well as any of the boys and already had an instinct for the game that would set her apart for the rest of her career. Things were different in the stands.
“Behind the scenes, my parents had their challenges,” Silverman says. “They’ve talked a little bit about the kinds of questions and comments they sometimes had to handle.”
“Prep School Hockey Saved My Life”
By the time Silverman was 12 or 13, it was clear that playing on a boys’ hockey team couldn’t last: She was small for her age and playing full-check, full-body-contact hockey. After a rough check from behind sent her headfirst into the boards, her parents, who have always been her first line of support and defense, felt it was time to move on.
“They took me to look at different options. I remember going to UCONN and watching the women’s club team play and turning to my parents saying, ‘Is this all there is?’ That’s when one of my mom’s co-workers suggested we look at prep schools. I really believe that prep school hockey saved my life.”
For the first time, Silverman was playing with and competing against talented young women who shared her love and passion for the game. While many had been playing for years, others were simply exceptional athletes spotted by legendary coach Chuck Vernon who became exceptional hockey players under his tutelage. Loomis is also where she met Judy Parish. Silverman had mentors in the game—Vernon and professional hockey great Gordie Howe among them—but Parish became her first female mentor.
“Judy was a senior at Loomis when I was a freshman,” recalls Silverman. “Four years later, she was a senior at Dartmouth when I was a freshman. She was an amazing hockey player and really influential. She took me under her wing at both schools and brought me into the fold.”
In 1990, while still a student at Dartmouth, Parish was named to the first US Women’s National Hockey Team and played in the first Women’s World Championship sanctioned by the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF). By 1994, Parish was an assistant coach at Dartmouth, and it was Silverman, then a senior, who was heading to the IIHF Women’s World Championships.
“I left Dartmouth for about two weeks to compete in Lake Placid,” Silverman says. “We lost to Canada 6-3 in the final game. I can remember standing on the blue line waiting to get our silver medals and feeling really happy to be there. I felt like I’d arrived. Then I looked to my right and to my left and my teammates were crying. There had been three women’s World Championships and the US had lost to Canada in all of them. There was this history and culture that I hadn’t understood: We needed to win, and we needed to win against Canada. It was an eye-opening moment.”
Silverman graduated from Dartmouth in 1994 with a degree in history and economics. She was a silver medal winner, a two-time Ivy League Player of the year, and remains the school’s all-time leading scorer with 189 goals and 312 points. The world, it seemed, was her oyster.
She wanted to play hockey.
“There was not a lot going on in women’s hockey at that time,” Silverman says. “World Championships were in alternating years, so there wouldn’t be another national team until 1996.”
Silverman completed a teaching internship at Pingree School and earned a master’s degree at Lesley College. She lived in the basement of a friend’s house and helped take care of their kids to help make ends meet. She kept up her training, driving 40 minutes at 5 am to take advantage of free ice time, hitting the weight room, working out.
“There was this whole scene around being prepared to make the next team. It was a lot, but it was for a purpose,” says Silverman.
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With 1996 approaching, USA Hockey hired a new coach to lead the next Women’s National Team. Ben Smith knew hockey, Silverman says, but not women’s hockey or any of the players.
“I went to that tryout thinking I’d been on the ’94 team, I’m really good, I have all these records from Dartmouth… I’m prepared. But I got cut; I got cut from that team. It was a bit of a shock.”
Silverman was not only shocked; she was angry and confused. She was also certain she’d be invited to the next training camp. But she wasn’t. In fact, three training camps came and went, and Silverman never received an invite. A stab at self-pity (fueled by pints of Ben & Jerry’s) didn’t quite take, so she joined a men’s league to get back on the ice and a new normal started to take shape: Brookwood offered her a full-time teaching position, and men’s league play introduced her to Steve Silverman, now her husband of 21 years. Life was good again. So when her mother called to say she’d received an official-looking letter from USA Hockey, Silverman didn’t bite.
“I had my life path: I was going to go teach and I was happy with Steve. I told my mom, ‘It’s probably just another USA Hockey Visa card application, throw it away.’”
Her mom was convinced it was a letter—a real letter. Silverman thought about the prior year—the camps she’d been left out of and the job offer she’d accepted. With the Olympics looming, Brookwood had specifically asked, “What if…?” She’d told them her days as a player with USA Hockey were done. Still, her mom wanted to open the letter, and she did. It was an invitation to try out for what would be the first U.S. Women’s Olympic Hockey Team.
“I told my mother I wasn’t going to go,’” says Silverman. “She was very patient on the other end of the phone. She said, ‘That’s fine, if that’s what you want. But how are you going to feel when you’re sitting on the couch watching the Olympics?’ I’m not sure I would have done it without her encouragement.”
USA Hockey named Ben Smith (that Ben Smith) coach of the first U.S. Women’s Olympic Hockey team. He needed a goalie and had his eye on Dartmouth’s Sara Tueting. Smith called Dartmouth Coach George Crowe who, after wholeheartedly endorsing Tueting, said, “By the way, whatever happened to Gretchen?” Smith’s reply: “Gretchen who?”
The rest is history.
Silverman says she’s never been a flashy player; her strength on the ice is what she calls her “hockey IQ.” She has a deep understanding of the game (hat tip Chuck Vernon), and the extraordinary ability to anticipate plays.
“Understanding the space of the game, knowing where to put myself, where people are going, being able to see things that maybe other players couldn’t see is what I think enabled me to be as successful as I was,” Silverman says. “I watched much flashier, skilled players who had all the dangles, but that wasn’t really me. I was like the lunch pail lady.”
The lunch pail lady brought her A-game to Nagano, Japan, for the Olympic debut of women’s ice hockey. Team USA would meet Team Canada on the ice twice.
“On paper, Canada was really the favored team. They had the big names—the star power,” says Silverman. “But when it came down to it, we were the team that really played together.”
By the time the teams met for the first time in round-robin play they already knew that they’d face each other in the gold medal game. But it was a preview—a first look—and the score was 4-1 Canada early in the third period.
“We were nervous and jacked up,” recalls Silverman. “Coach Smith called a time out and reminded us that the game was inconsequential. He encouraged us to relax and just play our game. And we did: we just started chipping away, one goal then another. We won the game 7-4. It was a big statement. We had the grit and the determination and the teamwork to come back and dig ourselves out of the hole. Because of our history with Canada, we always had this seed of doubt in our minds. Now we knew we could beat them. We took that mindset into the gold medal game.
Two nights later Team USA and Team Canada took the ice for the first women’s gold medal ice hockey game in history. Two minutes and 38 seconds into the second period, Silverman scored the first goal of the game.
“I shot it, but it was a team goal,” says Silverman. “That goal happened because we practiced for hours and hours and hours. It didn’t matter who put the puck in the net, we had systems in place and when Coach Smith drew up plays, we executed them.”
Team USA scored two more goals in their victory over Team Canada. It was a moment, Silverman says, of sheer elation.
“I don’t think the history of the moment hit any of us until much later, when we got home and had some time to reflect.”
There were interviews, a Wheaties box, a first pitch at Yankee Stadium, a visit to the White House. More important to Silverman, however, were the hometown celebrations.
“There was a big event at the elementary school I attended as a child,” Silverman recalls. “My former PE teacher was there, my youth hockey coaches came, and my best childhood friend Bryan was there and spoke on my behalf. It was just so great to have that come full circle and be recognized for accomplishing something that took a lifetime to achieve.”
Silverman visited many schools and youth organizations on her post-Olympic tour. An 11-year-old named Meghan Duggan was in the audience on one of those visits.
“There was a meet and greet after my speech and Meghan and her sister were there. Her sister was holding the Wheaties box. I put my jersey on Meghan and let her hold my medal, as her mother took a photo. Meghan says that is the moment her Olympic dream began.”
Today, Duggan has three Olympic medals of her own. She won gold at the 2018 Olympics, where she captained the US Women’s Ice Hockey team.
“To see her become the captain and 20 years later win the next gold medal for the US—I can’t even put into words the feeling that represents. To know that many of us on the 1998 team had a direct impact on young women who then lived their own Olympic dreams, and even the larger message that the team was able to send to little girls everywhere, that to us is really important. Winning the gold medal was great and all, but now that I am able to look back and understand how our success changed the trajectory of the sport and to see how far it’s come 21 years later is an incredible feeling.”
Paying it Forward
Silverman continues to inspire young women—and young men—on and off the ice. Now in her seventh year at Taft, Silverman is a math teacher, an Admissions Officer, a dorm parent in Centennial and head coach of the Girls’ Varsity Hockey team. She and Steve both share their talent and experience with the greater community as coaches in the local youth hockey league. She runs a camp for young women and has worked in a number of USA Hockey development programs. In each of those roles, Silverman says, she shares the wisdom gained through her own experience.
“Life is really one obstacle after another and you learn by navigating each one. It isn’t always easy. You learn strategies, and you learn to rely on the people who are in your corner—your coaches, your teachers, your parents. But in the end, only you can do the work; only you can put in the time, put in the effort, take your knocks and get back up. If I hadn’t been cut from the team and if I hadn’t had that struggle, would I have achieved at the Olympic level? I don’t believe I would have—I would not have had that perspective.”
Photos courtesy Gretchen Ulion Silverman