Undeterred by a learning challenge, Gopher hockey’s Kelli Blankenship skates into the final year of her stellar career.
By Erin Peterson
Photograph by Dan Marshall
From Winter 2010 issue
During her ﬁrst year at the University, Kelli Blankenship earned a 4.0 GPA and made a name for herself as a forward on the Gopher women’s hockey team. She played in all 36 games, scored a winning goal against the University of North Dakota, and twice landed Rookie of the Week honors. But Blankenship, a senior kinesiology major from Lusby, Maryland, had to work harder than most to make things look so easy. At age 6 she was diagnosed with dyslexia, and overcoming it has required an uncommon measure of discipline and diligence.
Dyslexia is a developmental reading disorder that makes it difficult to decode graphic symbols like letters and numbers even though many who have the disorder— including Blankenship—are exceptionally intelligent. “In my case, I can read upside down as quickly as I can right side up, and if you switch the words around in a sentence, I’ll be able to understand it just as well as I would if they were in the right order,” she says. “I can know exactly what I want to say and how I want to say it, but there’s a glitch in my brain that makes trying to get that all out on paper really difficult.”
But from the first moment she donned skates as a child, Blankenship had no such difficulties on the ice. Her parents initially enrolled her in figure-skating classes, and though she loved the ice, she hated the dress code. When she saw her older brother Jimmy walk onto the ice wearing the pads and gear of a hockey player, she was transfixed. “In figure skating, I knew I’d have to wear a little dress, and I wasn’t into that,” she says. “I thought my brother was so tough and so cool, and I wanted to do that.”
As her skills with the puck improved, her problems in school grew. Despite help, she struggled to learn to read, and when she was in first grade doctors diagnosed dyslexia. Blankenship’s mother, Connie, saw her daughter’s frustration as well as her intelligence, and decided to school her at home so that she could work at her own pace. Kelli found that constant repetition helped her process and understand information. She spent hours on her assignments, reading and re-reading them, listening to them, and talking about them.
Hockey was, and remains, Blankenship’s escape from the grueling requirements of her studies. “I love hearing the crackle of the ice from my skates,” she says. “I love the smell of the ice. I love the feeling I get when I do a turn and the ice chips out, and even how the puck moves.” However difficult her academic life was, Blankenship was confident she could succeed at hockey.
Others were too. By high school, she’d earned admission to the North American Hockey Academy in Stowe, Vermont, where she spent five months a year taking classes and improving her already impressive hockey skills. By the time she arrived at the University of Minnesota on a hockey scholarship, Blankenship’s athletic talents were unquestionable. But she and her coaches were uncertain how she’d fare in the classroom. Her flawless GPA put doubts to rest. Since her freshman year, she’s earned Academic All–Big Ten and All-WCHA Academic Team honors.
Still, much of Blankenship’s college experience has been challenging. During her first year, she was so concerned about doing well in school that she almost always opted out of social activities to hit the books. Since then, University Disability Services has helped her learn to manage her schedule so that she can study, compete, and still have time for friends and family.
Blankenship’s strong academic work led to a McNair Scholarship this past summer, a prestigious award named after the late Challenger astronaut Ronald McNair that is given to high-achieving first-generation college students. With funding from the scholarship, Blankenship spent the summer analyzing data about what makes the parents of young athletes happy. The topic was a good fit, since she considers her parents among her biggest supporters. “We’re always hearing about the angry side, but there’s not much research about happy parents. And there are a lot out there,” she says.
Nicole La Voi, Blankenship’s mentor and associate director for the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport, was dazzled by her work on the project. “In the classroom, she’s always working so hard to take information in, but when she presented her research, it was so clear that she was great with people. She connects with them in a very engaging way. It’s just another way that she really shines as a student.”
Until recently, only Blankenship’s closest friends knew about her dyslexia. She hopes that talking about it publicly will shed some light on the disorder. “I think [my story is one way to] change the way people view dyslexia, because it gives them an example of academic success by a dyslexic,” she says.
Blankenship will wrap up her collegiate hockey career this winter, where she’ll be a leader on a relatively young team that has gotten off to a strong start this season. Her goal is simple: She wants to focus less on her personal statistics and more on soaking up every last moment of her senior season. After graduation, she plans to study dental hygiene and hopes to find a way to continue with hockey. No matter what she pursues, Blankenship will dig deep to get the most out of it. She may make things look easy, but she’s never been content just to skate by.
Erin Peterson is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.