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Athlete sets goals and then meets them

Local Ice Chips don't melt in Phoenix.

Just ask girls sports advocate Elizabeth Ziarnowski, 22, of Wheatfield, who not long ago returned from competing in a hockey tournament in Phoenix, where her team, the Buffalo Ice Chips, placed first and were tourney champs.

Ziarnowski is a new graduate assistant at Canisius College, working toward her master's degree in education. But that is a small part of her story.

She has earned two undergraduate degrees from Canisius this year -- one in physical and health education, and one in religious studies -- graduating summa cum laude with a 3.95 grade point average, the highest in the School of Education & Human Services.

She belongs to a pair of honor societies, Alpha Sigma Nu and Kappa Delta Pi. Ziarnowski also coached track and field this year at Mount St. Mary's High School, in addition to working 30 hours a week as the youth minister at St. Jude the Apostle Parish in North Tonawanda.

A substitute physical education teacher in the Amherst School District and Orleans Niagara BOCES, Ziarnowski not only teaches sports, but enjoys playing them as well. She's on two softball teams and plays goalie for the Niagara Sabrettes and forward for the C-team state-bound Niagara Coyotes during hockey season.

How did you get into hockey?

My little sister, Rachel, began playing at a young age, and our family is very supportive. Besides watching her games, I also played around with her outside, and so I began to become interested in the challenge of a new sport. My dad built an ice rink one winter on our side lawn, so she could practice.

Eventually, as a physical education major, I was challenged by a professor in class to try a sport that I had never attempted, [and] our professor assigned us a report. After trying curling, I settled on ice hockey -- although my first attempt was nothing short of hilarious. I skated around the yard with my sister. Rachel made the comment that I couldn't play hockey "for real." So, I borrowed some equipment and went to a tryout. After which, I realized that I didn't know how to skate -- especially stop!

But I wanted to prove I could do it. Since then, I've not only learned how to stop, but have joined the Niagara Coyotes -- although I've got so much more to learn.

What challenges do women in sports face today?

Women have come a really long way in just the time that I've been involved in sports. In the past few years, I have really become dedicated to ice hockey, something that wasn't even considered a women's sport 10 years ago.

When I was young, I had the chance to play almost any sport. However, I think the challenge now lies in the perception of women in sports. Women are forced to fight many stereotypes that are associated with being an athlete. As a female competitor, I think the biggest challenge is for society to accept that women's sports should be equal, but different. I don't need to prove I've the strength to take a check in order to play hockey, because women's hockey requires more finesse and coordination. In addition, a challenge faced by women in sports is to bring an equal amount of respect for women sports.

Yes, by law, we've got equality, but not in actuality. Quick example: The women's skate is always canceled at one center during holidays -- not the men's skate.

What would you like to do with your life?

After I finish my master's degree at Canisius College, I'd like to work as a full-time physical education teacher. I would love to remain active in my church, working with teenagers. With girl' high school hockey slowly emerging, I would love to become involved in a coaching capacity. I think that both my upbringing and education in religion and physical education has made me realize that what I really want to do is become a positive influence for teens developing into good people, citizens and competitors. I want to teach -- not only how to play the "blue line" -- but honesty, integrity and sportsmanship. Whether that's from a teaching, coaching, or youth ministry standpoint -- that's up to God.

How did you become involved in sports?

My earliest memories are of my Dad playing catch with me in the backyard. He was my coach for softball, and he not only taught me how to throw, shoot a ball, or spike a volleyball -- but also perseverance and sportsmanship. I always loved sports -- playing or watching. My Mom encouraged this -- every time I finished a math lesson during school, I was sent outside to shoot 50 free throws for every one I'd missed at my last game. During my school years, I played softball, basketball and volleyball. I also participated in gymnastics and horseback riding. At the time, no girls really were seen in karate or hockey. As women began participating in these sports, I took the plunge and began karate, following the path of my little sister.

Tell us about the special engraving you have on your Canisius College ring.

Two of the most powerful words to me are "Passion" and "Strength," which I had inscribed on my college ring. If I have passion and strength, then the possibilities are endless.

Have an idea about a Niagara County resident who'd make an interesting question-and-answer column, or an issue worth exploring? Write to: Louise Continelli, Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240

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