It all happened very quickly for The Blake School junior goalie Olivia Bizal. A winger skating down the far side of the ice beat out her defense and crashed the net hard. With instinctual prowess, like Bizal had done so many times before, she crouched down to make the save. But the winger, trying just as hard at the Team USA tryout camp this past summer, didn’t stop.
“And her knee hit me in the forehead,” Bizal recalls of the injury. “I knew right away I had gotten another one (concussion).”
Olivia Bizal is 16 years old and that was her fourth concussion.
It was also the one that ended her hockey career.
“Yeah, I was mad that it got taken away from me,” Bizal said by phone. “But I see how right the decision was now.”
After the injury occurred this past summer, Olivia met with doctors and her family and came to the conclusion that the best thing for her long-term health was to stop playing hockey. That meant giving up the game that she both loved and excelled. Bizal is one the best goaltenders in the state and in the nation. She was at the Team USA tryout camp because of it. She had a college career at the University of Minnesota Duluth waiting for her because of it. But her latest concussion made her make a choice that no young child should have to make: continue chasing your dream or face an inevitable reality.
“My head is just so important,” Bizal said with a matter-of-fact tone. “I want to be an engineer someday, so we decided that the smartest choice for me would be to stop playing.”
That’s not to say the difficult choice came easily. Though only 16, the experience has forced her to grow up and make mature decisions.
“It’s been hard and a huge adjustment because I have been playing hockey since I was little,” Bizal said. “But being a part of the team has made it better.”
That’s right. Despite the fact that she cannot participate in games any more, Bizal still goes to practice every day to help and support her teammates. She still suits up in her gear and takes some shots. She just can’t play in any scrimmage or game action. That interaction with her hockey family has brought some normalcy to her in this tough time and has been an important part of her recovery.
“I was devastated and my team supported be so much. Stepping on the ice the first time, they all cheered for me, so they have really helped me get through this,” Oliva said with clear emotion in her voice. “It sounds super cheesy, but we are a family. There’s no one I’d rather be on the ice with. They are all my best friends. We hang out all the time outside of hockey. I am so close with them, so getting back on the ice again, it was incredible the support I got from them.”
There is a slight silver lining to this sad story. Because of the injury and the premature ending of her hockey career, Bizal has taken the opportunity to re-open her college search. Her passion outside of hockey is engineering. She loves math and science and wants to be a civil engineer, following in the footsteps of her brother and cousin who are in the engineering field. Now without hockey, she has been able to look at schools that tailor her academic needs.
“I loved UMD and it was a great fit for me for hockey and school,” Bizal says. “But now I am looking at the west coast and at Colorado because I didn’t have that option when I was looking at schools for hockey. So I have more choices now and I am just seeing where I want to end up.”
If you are reading this article and you are amazed at how well-adjusted this young woman is, you’re not alone. She has impressed many along this journey, including me. When I first made the call to Bizal, I expected a girl who was sad and destroyed at the fact that her dreams had been yanked from her – and who would blame her? Instead, I heard a young woman who was wise beyond her years.
“When you know a decision is right for your head and your health and the rest of my life, really, I am only 16 and I have a lot of years ahead of me and school is super important to me,” Bizal said. “I mean, the joy I get from stepping on the ice and winning a hockey game is great, but in the scheme of life, it’s not as important as being able to go to college to do the things that I love.”
While none of us really know just how we would react to such a situation, where our life’s goal is taken away, we can only hope that we’d handle it with the tenacity and calmness Olivia Bizal exhibited both in the nets and out of them.
Photo: Nick Wosika