A Young Hilary Knight Told Her Grandma She'd Play in Games Before Women's Hockey Was Olympic Sport

The 32-year-old had Olympic dreams before the women's hockey event was even on the Winter Games' roster, she tells PEOPLE in a new interview

Hilary Knight
Hilary Knight. Photo: Meg Oliphant/Getty

Nothing — not even the non-existence of the event she'd compete in — could stop a young Hilary Knight from dreaming of Olympic glory.

The hockey player, now 32, says her mom, Cynthia Knight, told her that as a little girl, she "turned to my grandmother and I was like, 'I'm playing hockey in the Olympics.' And at that time women's hockey wasn't in the Olympics. I was this crazy child that was like, 'I'm going to the Olympics.' "

Women's ice hockey was accepted as an Olympic sport in 1992 but didn't debut in the Winter Games until 1998 when Knight was 7. That year, the U.S. team took the inaugural gold medal.

Knight's interest in athletics started at a young age, but her actual sports varied. In fact, Knight tells PEOPLE Cynthia used to refer to her as "the one-sport wonder or the one-hit-wonder for sports." She moved from one sport to the next, quickly losing interest.

It was after the family moved from northern California to Chicago, Illinois, that Knight found hockey through her mother's friend. She'd skied, then tried ice skated before dabbling in her final winter sport, hockey. "It was really nerve-wracking to [my mom] because hockey, you require all this equipment, and at the time really the only sport that I really stuck with was skiing," she recounts. "And so my mom's like, 'Do I get them all this hockey equipment? They're just going to leave it the next day.' "

Luckily, she didn't just leave it the next day. In fact, Knight says hockey quickly developed into a passion before becoming something she realized she could do "seriously" once she reached high school.

"I was sort of a late bloomer in the sport," Knight says now. "I was just obsessed with the game and just wanted to get better. I couldn't even lift the puck until maybe two years or a year before high school."

Adds Knight, "I wasn't great by any means, but I was just so hungry to get better that I think that helped me come into my own when I finally developed as a player."

Now, the Red Bull athlete is heading into her fourth Olympics, after winning two silver and one gold medal at Games in years past. She's an alternate for this year's U.S. women's hockey team captain. The team began their journey to Beijing, China, for the 2022 Games earlier this week.

The women's tournament for 2022 will include 10 teams. Team USA is in Group A with Canada, Finland, ROC (the Russian Olympic Committee), and Switzerland. The five teams in Group A will advance to the quarterfinals with Group B's three teams, beginning the knockout phase.

Heading into the Games, Knight is hesitant to name the team's biggest competition: "I don't want to take any country lightly."

"Each country is going to present its own challenge," she says. "Obviously Canada and Finland are extremely good and Russia is good as well. So it'll really be interesting to see. And we haven't been able to play any of these guys for quite some time now just because of COVID."

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Hilary Knight. Harry How/Getty

But Knight isn't exactly nervous — more like "excited nervous," the athlete tells PEOPLE.

"I live for that uneasy feeling in your stomach, where the hair on the back of your neck stands up," she explains. "Because there's nothing like it. It's like that adrenaline rush that it's about to be go-time and the anticipation of a puck drop, and that's when I'm happiest. So I look forward to it."

She's also looking forward to wearing a "Team USA" again.

"To be united all together cheering one another on, knowing that we're a part of something bigger than ourselves, is a pretty unique and really cool feeling."

To learn more about all the Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls, visit TeamUSA.org. Watch the Winter Olympics, beginning Feb 3, and the Paralympics, beginning March 4, on NBC.

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