Karyn Bye-Dietz watched the dozen or so neighborhood kids skating on her homemade rink in the town of Troy Saturday afternoon and smiled.
"I love this," she said. "It brings back memories of when I was a kid and skated all the time, weekends, after school, whenever I could."
Bye-Dietz went from skating in her backyard in River Falls to winning a gold medal at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, as a member of the very first U.S. Women's Olympic Hockey team. She earned a silver medal four years later at the Salt Lake City, Utah, games. Today, she's a stay-at-home mom to her two kids, Tatum, 6, and Brody, 4, and couldn't be happier.
"I'm very happy," she said. "It's great to be a mom and it's great to have a family. And I'm very fortunate to be able to spend time with them. It gets better every day as they get older."
Bye-Dietz's husband, Cal, is the strength and conditioning coach at the University of Minnesota. She spends a couple of days a week coaching Brody's Mite Level 1 hockey team in Hudson, and teaches a boot camp fitness class at the Hudson YMCA twice a week.
"I also do some public speaking, more when the Olympics come around," she said. "I try to do as many of them as I can as a way of giving back. Speaking is something I love doing."
Bye-Dietz began skating at age 4 and started playing hockey at age 7. Back then there were no girls' teams, so she played on boys' teams under the name K.L Bye. During her second year on the River Falls High School boys' team, she was the second leading scorer with seven goals and 11 assists.
She went on to play for the University of New Hampshire women's team, where she scored 164 points in 87 games. She made the U.S. National Team and led all scorers at the 1998 Olympics with five goals. She was named USA Hockey Player of the Year in 1995 and 1998.
Bye-Dietz and her 19 teammates on the 1998 Olympic team were inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame last December.
In 1998 there were 28,346 female players registered with USA Hockey. Today that number has risen to 59,506, thanks in large part to Bye-Dietz and her teammates. She said none of them could foresee the effect they've had on girls' and women's hockey.
"After 1998, it took some time for us to realize the impact we had," she said. "But as I see more and more girls playing hockey I think, hey, I had something to do with this. And I was just doing something I loved to do, not to get more girls to play hockey. I just love the sport."
She said she's looking forward to watching this year's Olympics, which begin Feb. 12 in Vancouver, B.C., at home with her family, especially her kids.
"Both kids are beginning to understand what took place," she said. "I think it will be an eye-opener for them when we're all sitting on the couch watching the Olympics and I tell them, that's what mom did."
She said Tatum, a first-grader at River Crest Elementary School in Hudson, showed she's becoming aware of her mom's background when she introduced Bye-Dietz before she spoke at the school last Friday.
"The first graders were in charge of organizing the assembly and they had an opening ceremony kind of thing like the Olympics," Bye-Dietz said. "Then Tatum got up and said, 'I would now like to introduce our very special guest who will speak about perseverance, (that was theme), my mom Karyn Bye-Dietz.' I have to admit it was something special. I've never been introduced by my daughter before."
Bye-Dietz said she loves speaking to kids at schools.
"I feel I have a way to connect with them by sharing stories they find interesting," she said. "I tell them about flying to China and being in a plane for 15 hours and eating duck tongue soup and their eyes get wide as saucers. It gets their attention.
"I try to leave them with the message to set goals and have a dream," she added. "Not necessarily sports related. I want kids to grow up and be good people. If they have goals and something to follow, hopefully it will keep them out of trouble."
While Brody plays hockey in the Hudson Hockey Association, Bye-Dietz said she and her husband Cal have never pushed their kids to play the game that made her famous.
"To be honest, I could care less if they play hockey," she said. "But I've always wanted them to skate; to have an activity to do in the winter. To get out and get some exercise and fresh air."
Later this month, Bye-Dietz will do television color commentary for the Minnesota State Girls Hockey Tournament, and she said she's looking forward to more speaking engagements. She said she has no idea what she would be doing today if she hadn't followed her dream of playing hockey.
"Probably something sports related, and something working with kids," she said. "But not the typical 8-to-5 sitting-behind-a desk kind of thing. That's not me."
She said the notoriety associated with being an Olympian is fun, but she also relishes being a wife and mother.
"It's still fun to go around and have kids ask, hey, can I get your autograph?" she said. "Obviously people in River Falls and Hudson recognize me, but it's funny, the friends I've made in the last five or six years just know me as Karyn Dietz, mother of two kids. They don't know me any other way, and that's fine."