By Austen Thibault

For The Union Democrat

Roller hockey has been at the center of Jenna Weeks’ life since she was a small child.

In September, she will represent Tuolumne County in the sport’s highest level, the Women’s Senior Team for USA Roller Sports, the national governing body for competitive roller sports as recognized by the U.S. Olympic Committee.

The 20-year old from Sonora is trying to raise enough money tote her skates and gear across the world to compete in the 2017 Roller Sports World Championships in Nanjing, China.

The defensive skater moved with her parents to Tuolumne County when she was 4 and has played hockey since.

“I always skated around when I was little, but they didn’t really have the skates in my size ‘til I was older,” Weeks said, and laughed.

But it turns out there was nothing random about the age that hockey became the center of her life.

Weeks, born in Santa Barbara, moved to Sonora in 2001. High Country Sports Arena, the local roller rink off Camage Road, was established the same year.

“Wow,” said hockey coach and High Country Sports Arena President Mark Steichen when asked how long he had been coaching Weeks. To remember back that far was a struggle that Steichen met with a laugh and settled on, “Years and years. She absolutely spent a lot of time here.”

As for her recent accomplishment, he said “I’m very, very proud of her. We’ve never had anybody compete at this level.”

Weeks has played for about every team based out of the Sonora rink, through elementary school and high school.

“When I had nowhere else to go, I would come here and just play,” she said of her local rink, where her mother, Audrey, has served on the board and staffed events and the snack shack on and off for years.

In her pre-teen years, Weeks also expanded to the Bay Area for greater competition, with her older sister, Sienna, who has shared a lifetime of hockey with her sister.

Weeks made a splash playing for the Delta River Rats in Antioch, where the team went undefeated for two years. After that, a coaching/management decision to split up the team led Weeks to San Jose, a city any California hockey fan — probably any hockey fan — is familiar with, as the home of the San Jose Sharks.

Although Weeks grew up with Southern California pride for the Los Angeles Kings and still wears No. 14 for her favorite player, Mattias Norström, it was in San Jose that Weeks would meet her real life role model, Coach Dave Inouye.

“He’s the person who pushed me to apply for Team USA this year,” Weeks said of Inouye. “He never gave up on me. A few years ago, I had medical issues and one coach didn’t want me on his team anymore. Dave took me on his team and made sure I wouldn’t give up. He saw what my dad saw in me.”

As it happened, Weeks expansion into the Bay Area wasn’t really her idea. She had hit a low point.

“I was sitting on the bench, defeated. I was beaten down. People told me I wasn’t good enough,” she said. “My dad was the kickstarter in me achieving greatness. He saw the drive in me that no one else saw. When I was going to quit, he told me not to — to try a different team.”

So she started driving two-and-a-half hours for practice every Sunday, not to mention skirmishes and games.

“Even when I was playing for those teams, I was always out here playing pickup games, every Wednesday,” Weeks added.

Her devotion to her sport left no doubt in her new coach’s mind.

“She’s a dedicated person,” Inouye said. “Just a really hard worker.”

It was that edge he saw in her that got her onto his team, the Silicon Valley Quakes. Inouye has been coaching in the San Jose area over 20 years, including for a few of the Men’s Junior and Senior teams for USA Roller Sports. He’s coaching the Men’s Junior team again this year.

Under Inouye’s guidance, Weeks learned an advanced puck control system, among other techniques, and continued to use her superior skating skills to confound her opponents — the vast majority being significantly larger young men.

“I’ve always played against guys,” Weeks said. “I prefer it.”

The level of competition just isn’t quite the same with all girls, she said. Though that’s an experience she’s only had a few times in her hockey career.

“It’s great when she plays against boys, because she’ll take the puck away and they get pissed. They don’t want to lose to a girl,” Inouye said with a laugh. “I’ll tell you these girls, they are tough, playing against guys twice their size. The girls have to be super smart, ‘cause they’re undersized.”

That constant pressure served Weeks well when she was recruited by Inouye into the USA Women’s Junior team in 2012. She and her sister took on the best teen hockey girls from the globe, and ultimately defeated Canada to win the gold for the USA.

“That was really fun. It was a lot more competitive,” she said.

This year, the stakes are even higher as she plays at the highest level a woman can compete in roller hockey, the Women’s Senior division of the Inline Hockey World Championships of the Federation Internationale de Roller Hockey, the Swiss organization that has taken the lead on international roller sports events.

She was scouted at a tournament in Los Angeles last fall by the USA Women’s Senior coach, Dave Marmorstein, of Arizona.

“It’s overwhelming,” Weeks said, “I never really expected me of all people (to be selected), ’cause I’m from a small town. Most of them are from cities, so they have all of the funds and the resources that I never really had.”

Money is a factor.

The letter Weeks got offering her a spot on Team USA was about one part congratulations and three parts notification of fees that were her responsibility to pay. As a community college student working at Starbucks, Weeks has committed to the $3,500 out-of-pocket expense, but has also launched a GoFundMe page, asking for help.

To her, hockey is all about community. Make that family. She credits her family for getting her into hockey and for their extensive support over the years, and considers her hockey comrades as family.

“You build so many bonds with people, it becomes a family. You have to be a team and work together, and that’s the most important part. Mark is like a second dad … and I have a lot of brothers.”

She thanks Inouye for his coaching, local figure skating coach Maria Hines for making her a strong skater early on, Steichen and everyone at High Country Sports Arena for providing her a “second home,” and her family.

Weeks is studying at Columbia College with plans to major in sport psychology. She hopes to live in Tuolumne County, quite possibly coaching at High Country. Roller hockey has been up for consideration as an Olympic sport for years, and Weeks hopes that by 2024, it will be one. She hopes to be among the first Olympic teams.

She leaves soon for a few weeks of training in Arizona, then flies to Nanjing, China to represent the U.S. at the FIRS Inline Hockey World Championships Sept. 3 through Sept. 10.