Ruggiero aiming to compete one last time at the Olympics

Angela Ruggiero is a world-class athlete who also happens to have a world-class mind and a varied skill set. A mainstay defenseman for the U.S. women's hockey team for a decade, Ruggiero has also taken a few breaks to explore a subsequent career.

She worked in commercial real estate; she ran charitable programs for the NHL's New York Islanders. And Ruggiero kept playing, moving ever higher on the all-time appearances list. She frequently wondered how long she could maintain her double life.

Finally, the Harvard graduate had one of those fish-or-cut-bait moments. It came early last year, shortly after Donald Trump barked "You're fired!" 10 weeks into the 13-week shooting schedule for "The Apprentice."

Trump then took Ruggiero aside and told her how impressed he'd been with her. He wanted to hire her -- for real. The same week, Ruggiero was named to the U.S. team that would compete in the world championships and knew she'd come to a fateful intersection.

Ruggiero, who'd earned a slot as an "Apprentice" contestant through an online poll of Olympic fans, took Trump's offer seriously. She went to his corporate offices for an interview, and then went back for a follow-up.

Meanwhile, she skated circles in her mind. At 27 going on 28 years old, did she really want to do what it would take to make a fourth Olympic team? She'd been playing on elite teams since she was 15, compiling a list of academic and athletic awards the length of her arm. She'd been a four-time All-American, a two-time world champion and owned the full set of Olympic medals -- one of each color. Might it be time to move on?

Ruggiero's undimmed love affair with the game trumped Trump. She wrote the magnate a thank-you letter, telling him she was aiming to compete one last time in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. "Hopefully, you'll be in the stands watching," she added.

That's how it came to pass that Ruggiero made her way onto center ice in Lake Placid, N.Y., on Nov. 6 for a short pregame ceremony during the prestigious Four Nations Cup. The wholesome-looking blond girl who grew up skating in California and Michigan was about to play in her 206th game for the U.S. team, surpassing her former teammate Cammi Granato as the most durable player in the program's history.

Ruggiero was honored even as her teammates from the 1998 Olympic gold medal squad, most long since retired and on to starting families and other careers, gathered in Lake Placid for a class reunion. The youngest player on the '98 team, Ruggiero would be the oldest in Vancouver if she's selected. (Forward Jenny Potter, now a mother of two, is the only other holdover from the gold medal team in the current player pool.)

"I know I can still contribute and perform at a high level," Ruggiero said. "I'm not playing for lack of options. But this is such a fleeting thing. When I'm done, I'm never, ever going to be able to come back to it. I know Vancouver is my last go."

Once her mind was made up, Ruggiero decided she was all the way in. Rather than try to juggle a job and training, she moved to the Minneapolis suburb of Blaine, where the U.S. team has established a residency program. She and 13 other players work out together every morning, and Ruggiero also plays two or three games a week in season for the semi-pro Minnesota Whitecaps of the Western Women's Hockey League.

In her spare time, she's working on a master's degree in sports management at the University of Minnesota -- she hopes to complete her coursework a year from now.

"She's in the best place she's ever been as player, mentally and emotionally," said Harvard head coach Katey Stone, who coached the U.S. team to victory in the Four Nations tournament and is one of three candidates for the Olympic coaching job. "She's playing for all the right reasons and has a balanced perspective on hockey and competition. She started at such a young age, got on a Ferris wheel and never got off. Then she recognized she needed some separation for a while and stepped away."

Stone, who also coached Ruggiero at Harvard, said she still considers her one of the finest defensemen in the world after all these years. The two talked back when the Trump offer was fresh. Go all-out in fitness and preparation if you're going to commit to the game, the coach advised Ruggiero, but don't try to carry too much of the load for the team. Stone said she thinks Ruggiero has done a good job of that. "She is who she is, not who she's supposed to be, and she's a leader whether she has a 'C' or an 'A' on her jersey," Stone said.

Quick and versatile, Ruggiero has a career total of 55 goals and 121 assists, three of the latter coming at the Four Nations tournament, where the U.S. defeated archrival Canada for the championship and Ruggiero ran her games-played total to 208.

"It's the first time we've beaten Canada twice in a row at major competitions in the same calendar year since I started playing," Ruggiero said happily -- not that she keeps track. The U.S. also prevailed over Canada at this year's worlds for the second time in four years. Ruggiero freely admits that the long, contentious history between the North American neighbors helped her decide to stick around for Vancouver and help better the U.S. team's bronze medal showing in 2006.

That's the kind of competitiveness that caught Trump's eye, and Ruggiero might have a different answer for him if he comes courting again in a couple of years. But she also dreams of expanding her summer hockey school for girls into a leadership academy for girls and women of all ages in all sports. "I look at myself, and how much I've gotten just because I play a sport well," Ruggiero said.

That list includes success, satisfaction, and that most rare and prized of all things for an athlete -- longevity.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.