The Missing piece
One of the worst days of my life was in late January of my first year at Duke University. I was extremely excited for my first spring semester as a fall athlete; I couldn’t wait to go to parties and make friends outside of the field hockey team. In efforts for first years to meet and adjust to student-athlete life, the athletic department held a mandatory monthly leadership event called “ACTION.” These sessions, held in a conference hall, consisted of awkward ice breakers and mindfulness activities.
One week, ACTION featured a guest speaker. A grandfather-type with white hair, whose name I blocked from my memory, excitedly paced around the room, orienting himself before his lecture.
Thinking nothing of it, we struck up a polite conversation.
Soon after, the older gentleman started his slideshow. The gist of his lesson was from David Levithan’s book, “Every Day”– about a character who wakes up in a different body every day. The presenter shared that it was imperative to treat others with love.
Then, since audience engagement was low and none of the teenagers wanted to relent more precious homework time that evening than was already taken, the presenter asked the groups to raise their hands following the situations he described. The questions started out harmless. “Raise your hand if you have ever been in a fight with a friend,” he said. Then suddenly, the questions escalated. “Raise your hand if your parents are divorced,” turned into, “raise your hand if you know someone who has/had cancer,” then finally, “raise your hand if one of your parents is deceased.”
In a room of 200 strangers, I was the only one with my hand outstretched.
To make matters worse, the man came over to me, microphone in his hand, to tell everyone about how I had been so kind to him before his presentation, how I chose to be friendly, despite my hardship of losing a parent.
I could feel countless eyes boring into my skin. My cheeks were flushed, undoubtedly the exact shade they turn after a run test in the Carolina heat. He then handed me a copy of “Every Day” as if I had won a prize.
For the rest of the presentation, I sat toward the wall, where no one could look at me, tears pouring down my face. Finally, not wanting to draw more attention to myself as the crying girl with the dead dad, I waited until the end of the presentation before briskly walking out of the building. I ended up on the first floor of the student wellness center in a dark bathroom, humiliated, and sobbing on the floor.
My dad, Ken–a Yankees superfan, a church elder, a gardener, and a college cross country athlete at Cornell– died from his battle with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) when I was fourteen.
ALS is a debilitating disease. I imagine that watching your body dissolve right before your eyes, especially for a once star runner, was gut-wrenching. His speech went first. At age eleven, I struggled to keep my temper as he choked on his words.
The last time my dad saw me play field hockey, he was wheelchair-bound. He sat under a tree at the park, his head held up by a soft neck brace, watching as I trained with my goalie coach.
My parents and brain sheltered me from his demise. It wasn’t until I was rousted one early summer morning to help my dad, who had fallen out of bed for the second day in a row, that I learned that this was it. Dad had a DNR and would not be falling out of bed again.
Despite feeling alone that night in January, in a heap on that public bathroom floor, I now realize that there are a handful of mighty female athletes in my shoes.
Erin Marsh one of Duke’s most decorated track stars recently graduated with both Duke Undergraduate and Graduate degrees. Marsh’s list of honors is as long as her event, the heptathlon. Her proudest accolades are unique to her for one main reason: they all remind Marsh of her dad, who passed away from cancer in April 2021.
Her first ACC title– a Gold medal in 2020– was one of the last meets her dad watched. Then when her dad was in hospice during the 2021 season and Marsh was struggling with her mental health, she placed third in the NCAA in 2021 for the pentathlon. She remembers being incredibly proud of prevailing and “sticking with it when it wasn’t easy.”
Marsh earned a spot competing at the Olympic trials. “Arguably one of the coolest events in a collegiate athlete’s career,” she said.
After her father and biggest supporter passed, “track got really hard for a really long time, which was one of the scariest parts because it was such a passion of mine for so long. And it still is. I honestly had to relearn how to love a sport that my dad was a part of with me.”
At Olympic Trials, she competed despite not having her heart in the race. “I don’t think I realized how much the small pre-race pep talks or the post-race decompression ever meant.”
Marsh genuinely credits her coaches, brother, and mom for keeping her afloat. While she claimed she was not entirely “back”, she gave her last season in a Duke jersey her all. Erin Marsh hopes she’ll be at the Paris Olympics in 2024.
On the other hand, Morgan Fletcher, a junior, and one of the sweetest, well-spoken, subtly fierce girls I know, decided to leave the Duke Field Hockey team this past year. Her parents divorced at age three, so she was brought up by her mother and older brother, Dylan.
“I almost felt like I didn’t really miss out on not having a father figure, if you will, because my brother really took it upon himself to fill that role in some way. When it came to sports, I always had a best friend to go outside and play with,” she said.
Fletcher started playing club field hockey when she was nine. By the 8th grade, she got noticed by college coaches and began to consider her academic future.
Now, with a step back from collegiate athletics, she has reflected on her relationship with men in sports. Regarding her male coaches, she felt there was a tremendous pressure to impress them. “I think that might stem from the fact that I did not have an actual stable dad.” Fletcher chalks up a lot of her success to Dylan. “I always looked up to him athletically and in the classroom. I always strived to make him proud’... ‘my brother just kind of filled that void.”
Instead of playing sports to please other people, Fletcher stepped back from college athletics after she realized her passion fizzled out. She wants to expand her palate to explore opportunities outside of athletics. Finally free of commitment in the fall, Morgan is enveloped in her study abroad program in Berlin.
Erin, Morgan, and I are just a few of the many female athletes who busted their asses to get to Duke. While none of us have “fathers,” we want to be respected as athletes rather than pitied.
Unfortunately, none of us have learned how to bring “it” up in passing. While not a secret, we don’t know how to casually correct our teammates or their parents when they ask if both our parents are coming to the tailgate, game, or graduation.
We feel pressure to often perform for other people and sometimes forget about ourselves. Not having a conventional support system is challenging. We forget that we got to the highest level of competition, ourselves, and with tougher skin.
My dad didn’t know where I was going to college. He didn’t know that I would get considered by Cornell, dropped, and then, by a stroke of luck, commit to Duke.
He wouldn’t see me graduate from high school or my older sister from his alma mater. He wouldn’t know that I play for my teammates, mom, and school in his absence. He wouldn’t know that I wrote his initials on the top of my left goalie leg guard. He wouldn’t know that I don’t play in the games a lot, but when I get that opportunity, I think of him, but play for me.
It’s crazy how much you can accomplish when someone unequivocally believes in you.
Sometimes that person has to be yourself.