CAEN: French goaltender Charlotte Cagigos, 21-year-old, gets ready before participating on a rink in a training session in Caen, northwestern France, on September 28, 2021. - AFP

PARIS: Charlotte Cagigos is aiming high, hoping to help the French women's ice hockey team reach the Olympics. For now that means learning a new game as the only female goaltender training with a professional French squad. Having laced up her first skates at the age of three, the native of sunny Mediterranean city Montpellier -- not exactly an ice hockey bastion -- knows full well what's riding on her efforts, months away from Beijing 2022. "It's good for girls to see that you need to fight hard, and that hockey isn't just a sport for boys," said Cagigos, a 21-year-old now playing for the Caen Drakkars in the city of Caen in Normandy, northern France.

As the staccato of blades echoes off the ice, she stands guard in front of her goal during practice, taking hits from teammates who initially held back on their shots. "At first when you see a woman in the goal you say, 'We won't strike so hard, we'll be careful'," said her teammate Emmanuel Alvarez. "But it's exactly the opposite -- we want to score and we hit the same as with any goalie."

Cagigos sought a club after graduating from high school, but few have women's teams, and those that do often fill them with players of varying skills. So the French ice hockey federation allows women under 18 to skate on men's teams. For female goalies, there's no age limit, since the post is considered less exposed to the contacts that can be brutal elsewhere on the ice. But Cagigos is one of just a handful who have played high-level hockey with men since the 1980s.

'Solid work ethic'

Cagigos joined the Drakkars at 17 and now trains with its semi-pro Division 1 squad, just below the Magnus champions league, though so far she hasn't yet made its game roster. For regular season matches, which began Saturday, she is still on the U20 junior side or a reserve in Division 3.

But since playing her first -- friendly -- pro game in January, Cagigos has captured national attention, and she has even been profiled by Canadian television. She's not yet fully a pro, getting paid bonuses only for matches played, but the club's sponsors help cover the cost of the thousands of euros' worth of gloves, pads and helmet.

Between practices, she is also now studying for a master's degree in education, aiming to become a teacher. "She brings a competitive spirit and a solid work ethic. And above all she fights hard every day in front of her cage," says Drakkar coach Luc Chauvel.

She fits in so well "there are times I forget there's a young lady with us," he adds -- which also means he has to remember to plan on a separate locker room for Cagigos to suit up. "That's the only downside to playing with the boys: I miss the locker room camaraderie a little bit," she says. "It's a small inconvenience compared with everything that I'm now able to experience." - AFP