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A chat with UND sophomore defenseman Jake Sanderson

The Fighting Hawks blue liner is back from the 2022 Winter Olympics and awaiting a return to the lineup.

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UND's Jake Sanderson and Cornell's Zach Tupker work for control of the puck in the third period Friday, January 7, 2022.
Eric Hylden / Grand Forks Herald
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GRAND FORKS — UND sophomore defenseman Jake Sanderson returned to Grand Forks this week after a trip to Beijing for the 2022 Winter Olympics. Sanderson spoke with the Herald about his Olympic experience.

Q. You flew out of Grand Forks on Sunday, Jan. 30, to begin the journey to the Olympics. When did you test positive for COVID-19 and know there were going to be problems getting to Beijing?

A. I flew out to L.A. (Los Angeles) on Sunday morning, got there, and we had to test right when we got there. I tested around 2 p.m. L.A. time. Then, we had practice the next day, Monday. I skated with the team, got off the ice, and the trainers came and tapped me on the shoulder and pulled me out of the room and told me I was positive. I was just in disbelief. I’ve never tested positive before. I was shocked. I thought it was a false positive, too. I went into the hotel that night, tested the next morning, and sure enough, positive again.

Q. How did you handle the situation? Did you think you weren’t going to be able to go?

A. Right when it happened, I was very disappointed. I was just in disbelief. I couldn’t believe it was happening. Any time to get COVID, this is the one time, I couldn’t. I made sure I wouldn’t get it. I made sure I was staying safe at home in Grand Forks. I was just going from the rink and back home. I really didn’t want to get it. But that’s something I can’t control in this world right now. When I had it, I was really down. I thought I wasn’t going to go. I was lucky enough to have a good support group with my parents, my family and my teammates and coaches here were some of the first people to reach out and give me hope.

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Q. What was the process to get to China? When did you start feeling there was hope?

A. To get out of quarantine, I had to test negative twice. I tested positive five days in a row. On the sixth day, I tested negative. When I tested negative, my hopes started going up. I started believing I had a chance. The next day, I was negative again, and I was allowed to go out of my hotel room and walk around. It was an Olympic rule that after quarantine, I had to test negative four days in a row (before traveling). I was still able to get outside, though, and I was lucky enough to skate three days before I went over.

Q. Where did you skate?

A. At the Kings’ practice facility, where we were practicing.

Q. What was the travel like to get over there?

A. Everyone was talking about how tired they were from travel and the time difference. I honestly didn’t feel it, because I was so excited to be there, being in the situation I was in, thinking one day that this opportunity was going to get taken away from me. I was super fired up to see the coaches and the guys, and I felt super blessed to be given the opportunity to go.

Q. You played in one game at the Olympics — USA vs. Canada. What was it like to be a part of that game?

A. That was really cool. It was definitely tough for me, because I only had one practice with the team before the game. I had to learn quick, learn the systems quick. To say I played a game in the Olympics is pretty surreal, so that’s cool.

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Q. You sustained an upper-body injury in that game, which kept you out the rest of the Olympics. When did you know the injury was going to be a problem?

A. I realized it was going to be an issue right when it happened. I got hit awkwardly. It was kind of a dirty hit in the second period. . . I think exactly the halfway mark of the game. I just needed my adrenaline to get me through the game and it did. When the game finished, I knew right away I was going to be done. I didn’t know whether it was a broken collarbone or a separated shoulder or what, but I knew it was something that was going to take me a while to get back.

Q. There were a lot of ups and downs for you, from getting quarantined in Los Angeles to getting to Beijing and beating Canada to sustaining the injury. Did it feel like a roller coaster of emotions for two weeks?

A. Roller coaster is the right word. I was feeling really good after a win against St. Cloud. Then, quarantine. Then, knowing you’re going to be done for the tournament. I put my trust and faith in God. That’s something I truly believe in. It puts everything in perspective in life to help me get through it. At times, I was super down. I couldn’t help the team win throughout the tournament. But hockey injuries happen, even in the coolest opportunity playing in the Olympics. I felt like I made the most of the trip, hanging out with the guys, going to other events. Overall, the Olympic experience was pretty cool, but definitely not how I thought it was going to happen.

Q. I know other Olympic athletes say one of their favorite parts of the experience is watching other events. Did you get to watch other events?

A. I watched the Big Air Snowboarding. That was really cool. I thought that was sick. I went to speedskating — one where 15 skaters go at once, which was really cool. I went to curling as well, which was fun. I didn’t go to the event, because it was in the other village on the mountain, but I think halfpipe skiing was definitely one of the coolest events I saw on TV. It was pretty special, because when I was in L.A., all the skiers were coming over. They were all on my flight, so I got to meet a couple of them. They’re great people.

Q. What was it like to attend the Closing Ceremonies?

A. It was sweet. I was bummed I couldn’t go to Opening Ceremonies. I wanted to stick around, because that’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It was really cool seeing all the countries in the stadium, all the different countries' swag. It was a great Olympics, very well run.

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Q. What time did UND games start in China? Early morning?

A. It was like 9 a.m. I tried to watch when we weren’t doing something.

Q. What was it like to see the team get on a bit of a roll?

A. It was really cool. It was really cool to see guys step up. Our whole team is banged up right now, but other guys are stepping up. They needed to elevate their role and they have. That sweep against Duluth. . . I was pumped for the boys. I was watching that. (Minnesota Duluth’s Noah) Cates was there with me. I was jabbing him a little bit.

Q. How did you find out Carson Albrecht scored his first-career goal?

A. I was watching it live. I was in the gym, riding the bike. I had the phone up. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is awesome.’ I was texting Riese (Gaber), too, and he was freaking out. To see a guy like that go a while without scoring, but still brings positivity each and every day, you really think about those guys and what great teammates they are.

Q. How many men’s hockey players stayed until the end with you?

A. There were like 10 guys. A lot of the younger guys left, because they wanted to get back and possibly play in games. But I was with (Drew) Commesso, Catesy, Nathan Smith and Strauss Mann among the younger guys.

Q. What was the process like to get home?

A. USA had a charter with like 200 athletes on the plane. We started in China, went to Korea, then to Salt Lake City. Then, I went from Salt Lake City to Minneapolis (on a commercial flight). My flight from Minneapolis to Fargo was canceled, so the next morning, I flew to Grand Forks.

Q. Were there any other parts of the trip or memories that will stand out to you in the future?

A. I think just seeing the other athletes from all around the world. That’s just surreal itself. Being in the cafeteria with the other athletes, eating next to them, walking around the village. . . the village was really cool. There are hundreds and hundreds of athletes. I went to the gym a couple times after I got hurt and you’d see some people in really good shape. . . they’re the best at what they do in the world. That was really cool to be around.

Q. I assume this is something that you’d like to do again in the future?

A. That’s something that went through my mind. People kind of have their ‘why’ on why they play hockey. That was part of my ‘why’ when I was going through that tough time, going through COVID and being injured. I’m looking forward to my future.

Q. What was it like when you walked back into Ralph Engelstad Arena and saw your teammates for the first time?

A. I was so pumped to see everyone. These are my best friends. It’s been a while since I’ve seen everybody. The boys were pumped to see me, too, which made it better. They were checking in while I was hurt, which meant a lot to me. I’m excited to watch them play this weekend. Hopefully, I’ll be back in the lineup soon.

Q. What’s the atmosphere around the rink with the team on a good run?

A. It’s awesome. I can sense a different vibe. Everyone is a little more confident. Practices are a lot more smooth. Guys are having more fun. They’re more relaxed and that allows them to do what they can do.

Schlossman has covered college hockey for the Grand Forks Herald since 2005. He has been recognized by the Associated Press Sports Editors as the top beat writer for the Herald's circulation division four times and the North Dakota sportswriter of the year once. He resides in Grand Forks. Reach him at bschlossman@gfherald.com.
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