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Born This Way

12/06/2011, 1:06pm CST
By Nancy Pias

Caitlin Tate’s Success Story

Imagine, for a moment, that you are a goalie. Make it one of the better high school goalies in the state. It’s an intense game and your defense has been burned by the opposing team, now rushing down the ice toward you. You rotate your shoulders and get set, remaining square to the puck in the middle of the net. You’re ready for the shooter. As the puck screams toward you, you reach out to grab it – without a hand.

Impossible? Not for Caitlin Tate, a goalie for Park High School in Cottage Grove. Born with only a portion of her right forearm, Caitlin wears a prosthesis that fits into a specially made goalie glove, with which she has become a high school star in the making. “She never seems self-conscious,” says her goalie coach, Mike Moline. “If you saw her on the ice, you wouldn’t even know.”                 

For her part, Caitlin has never known what it is like to have two hands. Her dad, Dirk Tate, recalls when she learned to tie her shoes. “I remember thinking, ‘I don’t think I could do it!’ She learned to do that quickly, and all the other tasks that we take for granted,” he says. “We don’t even think about it anymore – she pretty much does everything.”

Caitlin’s can-do attitude stems in part from strong family roots, out of which sprouts a competitive drive. Dirk and his wife Julie’s youngest child and only daughter grew up watching big brothers Daniel and Alex play hockey. When she was eight years old, Caitlin saw no reason why she couldn’t play, too.

What was logical thinking to young Caitlin required creativity on the part of her parents. “We had to think, ‘How are we going to make this work?’” says Dirk. The question was answered by the Minneapolis Shriner’s Hospital, which built Caitlin a special prosthesis, placing a hook on the end so she could loop it around her stick.

Not long after her start as a forward, Caitlin decided she wanted to play goalie like her big brother Daniel. Never ones to say never, the Tates returned to Shriner’s with a goalie glove in hand. Their response, says Dirk, was, “‘Wow, we’ve never done this before,’ and they figured it out.”

Caitlin was able to slide her forearm into the new prosthesis, which had two fingers that slid into a special goalie glove with the deepest pocket possible. Caitlin remembers the awkwardness of that first rendition. “It slid around on my arm and they were afraid it would fall off,” she says. To guard against that, a strap was added that went around Caitlin’s shoulder – and didn’t work very well.

Since then, Caitlin has been back to Shriner’s for many upgrades and fittings as she has grown. For the past three years she has enjoyed what she calls “the right fit,” as well as a sense of gratitude she and her parents share for Shriner’s Hospital, which has provided all of her orthopedic care free of charge.

While her prosthesis allows her to play hockey, Caitlin does not use one in her daily life. “When I was younger my parents had me wear one. I guess I hit my brothers with it,” she says with a laugh. She stores her gloved prosthesis along with her other equipment in her hockey bag. A practical, essential means to an end.

Practicality aside, Caitlin admits she went through a period when she was self-conscious about her uniqueness. “Growing up, I was embarrassed,” she says. “You just want to fit in, and I was different.”

Looking back, she sees how her struggles helped her become more tenacious, particularly when she began to excel at hockey. “People would ask, ‘How do you do that?’” she says. When kids marveled at the fact that she could play better with one hand than they could with two, she began to see herself in a new, more self-assured light.

She owes some of the credit to Moline, who has coached the girl he affectionately calls “Tater” and “Tater Tot” since she first started in the net. “She does an unbelievable job – she’s an inspirational kid,” he says.

A goalie trainer for the Cottage Grove Athletic Association and the Park girls’ hockey team’s goalie coach for the past seven years, Moline learned early on that Caitlin did not want special treatment. When he gave her permission to cut corners during a difficult drill, he remembers her politely but firmly saying, “No, Mike, I can do it.”

“Caitlin would be the starting goalie at 90 percent of high schools if she wasn’t at Park. She’s that good. She’ll own the net when she’s a senior.”

—Coach Mike Moline

Using Caitlin’s prosthesis in the net requires anticipation. “I have to estimate where the puck is going to be and act like I have a hand there,” she says.

“I made a mistake singling her out. I treat her the same way I do the other goalies,” says Moline, who nevertheless focuses more diligently on certain aspects of Catilin’s game. “She has to work hard to overcome not being able to catch a puck,” he explains, equating the challenge to holding a ballpoint pen in the air, tossing up a tennis ball and trying to swipe at it with the pen, adding another several inches to account for the prosthesis and glove.

To compensate, says Moline, “She’s very quick in the rebound lane. She can get down and cover the puck quicker than most goalies I’ve seen. With training and thousands of pucks shot at her, she now minimizes the rebound and makes more bread-basket saves and catches more pucks. I think it makes her better.”

While repetition breeds muscle memory, all of the skills training in the world is useless if a player doesn’t have the drive to compete – something Caitlin has never lacked. “She’s got a competitive fire in her belly,” says Moline. “She never wants to quit.”

Other girls in her situation may have thrown in the towel long ago. Once again this year, Caitlin, a junior, is playing behind Allie Morse, a senior Moline calls “one of the best goalies in the country in her age group.” In 2009, Allie and Caitlin were two of only 12 goalies selected from throughout the state for the Minnesota Hockey Girls Advanced 15 National Development Camp in Mankato.

“Caitlin would be the starting goalie at 90 percent of high schools if she wasn’t at Park. She’s that good. She’ll own the net when she’s a senior,” he says.

As for life after hockey – is there such a thing? – Moline is unwavering in his belief that Caitlin will be successful no matter what she does. “She wants to be an actress, and I have no doubt she will. She lights up a room when she walks in. Life’s all about having fun – she just lives it – and everybody loves her,” says Moline, adding that with Caitlin, “God touched that family in a special way.”

Her dad wholeheartedly agrees. “She is a very lovely girl,” he says. “It never ceases to amaze me what she has been able to accomplish.”

Tag(s): Issue Archive  2011-2012 Issues  December 2011