There will be moments during February’s televised Winter Olympic Games when viewers across the world drop everything to watch the screen in quiet unity. Television makes clear what stands in front of the athlete: the competition, judges, scores, and medals. Less visible is what stands behind the athlete: an enormous, lifelong community of family, friends, coaches, trainers, physicians, and teachers who helped him or her arrive at this moment.
They, too, are a critical part of the competition, so we gathered the stories of homegrown Winter Olympians to see how their lives in Northern Virginia—varying in detail and background, but tied together by region and athletic drive—brought them to the top of their sport.
Here, we spoke to international hockey star Garrett Roe about playing hockey in Virginia and how it eventually led him to earning a spot on Team USA.
Sport: Men’s ice hockey
Games: Pyeongchang 2018
Garrett Roe can’t remember a time when hockey was not part of his life. His father, Larry Roe, is co-founder of Reston Raiders Hockey Club, so Garrett and his brothers were chasing pucks almost as soon as they could walk. “Garrett was on the ice when he was about 5, and it was apparent immediately that he was going to be a good player,” says Larry. “He was quick and always ready to go.” A standout player in high school and college, Garrett never did enter the National Hockey League. And that’s why it was so surprising that, at age 29, he earned the honor of being chosen to play for the United States at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.
Roe seriously pursued both soccer and hockey while attending Fairfax County’s Wolftrap elementary and Kilmer middle schools in Vienna. “Sports are the best way for kids to grow up, to be on a team and make friends. Nothing bad can come from sports,” he asserts. By ninth grade, he chose hockey over soccer and moved from Vienna—and from his childhood sweetheart and future wife, Brittany—to attend hockey academy and high school at the prestigious Shattuck–St. Mary’s boarding school in Faribault, Minnesota. “Going there was a necessary step to progress in the sport,” says Roe. “It has a top academic curriculum for college prep and is known around the world as a hockey factory.”
A degree in finance at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota followed, where Garrett was regarded as a standout player for one of the best college hockey programs in the nation, setting the school record for assists and ranking third all-time in points scored. “And he finished college in four years, which is pretty rare for a Division I athlete,” notes Larry.
In 2008, Roe was selected by the Los Angeles Kings in the NHL entry draft, but his dream of playing for the NHL slipped away. Roe (who at 5’8” is on the small side for a professional player) wanted to finish college. “It’s tough to have a long professional career, and not many people are able to do it, so you want to finish that degree while focusing on hockey. If it doesn’t work out, then you have something to fall back on,” he explains. “I come from a home where higher education is stressed. Both of my parents have multiple degrees, and my mom is a teacher.”
So Roe finished school and never signed with the Kings, instead playing for the Adirondack Phantoms, the top minor-league team for the Philadelphia Flyers in the AHL. “There’s a lot of business involved at the professional level that can leave a player frustrated and takes some of the joy out of the game,” says Roe. “Of course I wish I could have played in the NHL—that’s the goal of every kid who plays hockey. But it’s only a select few who do, so the others have to find their own ways to play.”
For him, that meant accepting an opportunity to play in Europe, and today he plays for National Team ZSC in Switzerland. “It’s a different route, but there’s great hockey here. It’s a beautiful place to live, we understand the culture, and we feel like we fit in. It’s a great place to raise the kids,” says Roe. He and Brittany, along with their two children, return to their home in Northern Virginia at the end of each season.
Amazingly, Roe’s decision to play in Europe opened a door he never expected. In 2018, the NHL decided its players would not participate in the Winter Games in Pyeongchang because of disputes between the league and the International Olympic Committee over associated costs, along with a general reluctance to interrupt the NHL season. This presented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Roe, one of the top American hockey players on a European team, to be selected as a member of the U.S. men’s team.
Was he nervous? “Team USA does a good job of preparing the athletes, but my advice to future players is just trust your accomplishments and training and have confidence in the reasons you were picked for the team,” says Roe. “The moment is big, but believe in the things you’ve done and all your preparation, and you’ll find the success you are dreaming of.”
Most of Roe’s family traveled to Korea to cheer him on, even one of his brothers who surprised him after saying he couldn’t come. “I actually turned 30 at the games, and my brother surprising me was the best birthday gift I’ve ever had,” says Roe. “He flew all that way and back with just two days available in his schedule to see me, and I still get emotional just thinking about it.”
Roe says he enjoyed watching other Olympic events and exploring the village. “Every team had a house where family members and teams could go to feel at home. It was amazing to be cheering an athlete I’ve never met one minute, and then see them at lunch the next day in the village. It was almost like a big, luxurious summer camp.” Roe says it’s unfortunate that families won’t have that experience in 2022. “It’s tough, but it’s the world we are in now, and we just have to accept it for what it is.”
Roe may never go to the Olympics again, but back in Europe, he stays committed to hockey. And as long as he’s playing, being with the NHL is a dream he will never give up. Still, he’s realistic. “At my age, the chance is almost nonexistent. I would love to do it, but I wouldn’t put a lot of stock in it happening now.”
But he still considers Vienna home. “We come back every summer,” he says. “Switzerland is a great place to live and raise kids. We’ve made a life here and have friends, but family is family, and you can’t replace that with anything, no matter how nice it is to live anywhere else in the world. You can’t replace being near parents, siblings, nieces, and nephews. No matter how much money you make or where you live, the trump card is always being near family.”