Hockey player Kareyna Baylor breaks down barriers with hard work on and off the ice | Our America: Fifty 50

PHILADELPHIA — Kareyna Baylor’s days begin early. She usually gets up at 6:15 a.m., but her early mornings seem even earlier if she had a late night the night before.

Sometimes she stays up until 1:30 a.m. All those hours are filled with activities that put her at the top of her game in school and in a sport where there are not many young black women: hockey.

“Being a woman. Playing hockey itself. Being black. Those are all mental challenges,” the 18-year-old Philadelphia native said.

She got a lot of attention for her abilities on the ice, but Kareyna herself didn’t know much about the sport when she was a kid.

“[I’d] never seen a hockey video before. I’ve never done anything with hockey,” she said.

Everything changed when the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation staged a gym class takeover at Kareyna Elementary School.

“Coming home from work one day, Kareyna said, ‘Dad, I want to play hockey,'” Kareyna’s father Kareem Baylor said.

But trying a new sport wasn’t easy.

“Her first day didn’t go very well,” said Casey Kilduff, senior coordinator of women’s hockey programs for the Snider Foundation. “She fell and was slightly injured.”

“I sprained my ankle after 15 minutes and had no intention of going back,” Kareyna said. “Coach persuaded me like, ‘Come on, come back. If you fall, get up and keep trying.'”

With the coaches encouraging her, Kareyna returned to the ice and blossomed.

“She started playing,” her dad said, “and she was good! It’s like looking at your kid and saying, ‘Wait, is this really happening?’ But she was good, she played, scored and [passing]. I said, ‘Wow!'”

Kareyna’s skills have caught the attention of parents, players, coaches and fans. She is now the team’s captain and plays a mix of striker, center and right winger. Hockey allows him to show his strength.

“I like it when we’re about to score on a goalkeeper and the other team wants to put us in the face. I appreciate the tension,” she said, “because now that you want to bring tension and I can’t really fight, I’m going to give you my power through my talent.”

Often, Kareyna is the only African American player on the ice. It’s something she says she had to overcome mentally, but overall she and her parents had a great hockey experience.

“Our experience as black parents – we always felt welcome,” said Kareem Baylor. “We felt weird because we [stuck out like a] a sore thumb. But as far as the reception is concerned […] it wasn’t racism.”

This left Kareyna free to focus on hockey, her school and her job. The teenager’s 6 a.m. wake-up call is followed by a 75-minute journey to school by bus and tram. Sometimes it’s preceded by hockey practice.

“I have hockey practice at 5 a.m. School at 7 a.m.,” she said.

When she has finished a full day of school, Kareyna usually goes to work at a local restaurant.

“Recently I’ve been working 4-11 to make enough money for prom,” she said. “I’m still tired but it keeps me going because it’s for a reason.”

Her commitment paid off, as Kareyna received an offer for a full scholarship to Villanova University. And it’s not the kind of scholarship some would assume the hockey phenom would get.

“[It’s a] a full scholarship,” Kareyna said proudly, adding that she plans to play on the Villanova club hockey team.

It’s a feat his father, who works as a roofer, could never have imagined when he put a roof on Villanova Law School.

“As a roofer, I’m like, ‘How long will I have to stay on this roof to help pay for my education?'” he said. “When she received the notice to have the Villanova scholarship…[I was] out of my mind!”

Kareyna, on the other hand, took it all in stride. It is a virtue she learned as part of her Muslim faith.

“I just try to keep it modest,” she said. “Modest and humble. It’s probably the most important thing I live for.”

Through it all, her mom and dad have been there to cheer her on.

“Knowing that they’re doing everything for me and that my little brother is pushing me to keep going,” she said. “I love them so much.”

Her father echoes the same sentiment, marveling at his daughter’s accomplishments.

“He’s my best friend,” he said. “My children, they are number one, and I live for them.”

He plans to make the short trip to Villanova often to visit his daughter and watch her play hockey. It’s a new journey that Kareyna can’t wait to start.

“I feel like my future is what it is now, only bigger,” she said. “Hockey is definitely in my future…I’d like to go beyond college: NWHL [now known as Premier Hockey Federation], American Hockey. Sport is really my life!”

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Catherine J. Martinez