September 7, 2016
Virginia goalie Rachel Vander Kolk, the 2015 ACC Freshman of the Year, recently qualified for the 2017 U.S. women's national training team. (Cecil Copeland)
Virginia goalie Rachel Vander Kolk, the 2015 ACC Freshman of the Year, recently qualified for the 2017 U.S. women's national training team. (Cecil Copeland)

UVA Goalie Finds Her Way After Twin Sister's Suicide

by Kate Hickman | | Twitter

Rachel Vander Kolk had no safety net.

As the lone goalkeeper on the Virginia women's lacrosse roster, Vander Kolk, then a freshman, stepped immediately into a starting role in 2015 and became the only goalie on the roster when Britt Brown left the team. Coach Julie Myers enlisted Virginia field hockey goalie Carrera Lucas as an emergency backup and even brought in a male goalie from the school's club team to step in during practices.

But the pressure to perform when it counted rested solely on Vander Kolk's shoulders.

It was nothing compared to the pressure she felt four years ago, playing for a state championship while mourning the unimaginable loss of her twin sister.

Tracy Vander Kolk committed suicide May 10, 2012. She was 16.

"To this day, I am still learning how to navigate without her," Rachel Vander Kolk said recently. "I try to live every day with her in mind, to not take any moment for granted."

In the weeks after, Rachel Vander Kolk split time in goal and fueled Severna Park's emotional run to the Maryland 4A-3A championship. Lacrosse Magazine columnist Kate Hickman was an assistant coach on that team.

Hickman wrote "The Vander Kolk Perspective," a first-person story which originally appeared in the May 2015 edition. Since then, Vander Kolk has emerged as one of the top goalies in the ACC and recently earned a spot on the 2017 U.S. women's national training team that will be in action this weekend at the US Lacrosse Grand Opening — achieving these feats while also volunteering for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Twin sisters Tracy (15) and Rachel Vander Kolk starred on the Severna Park (Md.) lacrosse team.

The Vander Kolk Perspective

I was out to dinner in Annapolis this winter and ran into Keith Vander Kolk, the father of a former player of mine, Rachel Vander Kolk. I coached Rachel both at Severna Park (Md.) High and in club. She was one of those special players in my coaching career: self-motivated, competitive and an extension of myself on the field by being a true leader. It was no surprise, in my experience guiding Rachel through the recruiting process, that she ended up at the school she originally set her heart on: Virginia.

Catching up with Keith, I inquired about Rachel's first fall season. He explained that the other goalie on the team had left and Rachel would be stepping into the starting goalie position as a freshman. "Of course she's not happy about it," he joked, half serious. "She wanted that starting position but, you know Rachel, she wanted to earn it."

This is classic Rachel. She has a competitive mentality and relentless spirit.

I met Rachel and her twin sister, Tracy, when they were in sixth grade, while I was coaching their older sister. This tag team was one known for their long blond hair, magnetic personalities and natural athleticism. Whispers of Rachel's prowess in the cage started spreading when she was young, so when she finally grew into the high school circuit, I was excited to see what the kid was all about.

By her sophomore year at Severna Park, Rachel was living up to the hype not only on the lacrosse field, but also on the soccer field and basketball court. She was the player every coach salivates over, and I was excited to finally work with her.

Sophomore year came before the Vander Kolks knew it, and the recruiting cycle came with it.

"The winter months before that spring season were really stressful for my sister and I," Rachel said, "really getting into the thick of college recruiting and having to decide what we wanted to do for the rest of our lives at such a young age."

Such is the life of a sophomore lacrosse player. Both Rachel and Tracy Vander Kolk made varsity as sophomores in 2012 and our season got started as usual, trying to find the key to unlock this group's raw talent.

But just when you start to overvalue something relatively insignificant like lacrosse, life has a tendency to smack you back into reality. Out of nowhere, tragedy struck our team that made lacrosse seem so small and inconsequential.

Tracy was beautiful, intelligent and charmingly quirky. But she had been struggling for more than a year with depression and on May 10, 2012, the day before our first playoff game of the season, Tracy lost her battle with this disease, taking her own life. For what seemed like an eternity, the world stopped turning.

The immense grief of losing a sister or daughter is unfathomable. The devastation of losing your twin cannot be confined to the pages of a magazine — nor can it be understood by the well-intended outsider trying to support a teammate, player or friend. But the world was watching Rachel, allowing their response to be dictated by hers.

"I really started to feel the extreme of what the rest of my life was going to be like," Rachel said of the day's that immediately followed her sister's death.

Rachel Vander Kolk emanated strength, leading the Falcons to the 2012 Maryland 3A/4A state championship while honoring her late sister with neon green numbers on her helmet. Tracy Vander Kolk wore No. 15 for Severna Park and No. 11 for her club team.

Despite carrying the weight of grief and pain on her shoulders, Rachel implicitly carried the weight of the team and its coaches as well. All eyes were on her for permission to react, silently dubbing Rachel the inheritor of this decision.

As we sat in the team house the following day, Rachel stood up, resolute to lead the team in our next step forward. "I led, because lacrosse meant so much to my sister and so much to me and so much to that team," she said. "I felt like I needed to pull everyone together during a situation that not many people know how to deal with. Suicide throws everything into unchartered waters, and I wanted to be able to help guide everyone through it, because doing that helped me find my way so much more than if I had gone it alone."

Rachel emanated a palpable strength that allowed her teammates to grieve while also discouraging them from giving up. Her natural tenacity, motivation and selflessness, inspired by a love for her sister and her teammates, rose above the grief and carried the team with it. Because, well, if Rachel was choosing strength and perseverance, we all better damn well follow.

We ended that season, winning the Maryland 3A/4A state championship, led by Rachel's charisma and strength in something larger than herself. Rachel stepped into the cage as a sophomore, leading us to close victories in that playoff run, playing the best I had ever seen her play.

Playing for two.

"The immediate games following that moment were what saved me," she said. "I was able to fully indulge myself in those practices and games, and be around a team that was 100-percent there to support whatever I needed. Those girls and those experiences really helped me be able to not be lost in hard times. They were my oasis."

Former Virginia standout Julie Gardner, now an assistant coach at Vanderbilt, was Rachel's club coach starting in sixth grade and is a long-time family friend and mentor. Gardner actively supported Rachel through this time.

"The fact that she was able to go on with the lacrosse season just weeks after that immense loss is a huge tribute to Rachel, her family, and the Severna Park lacrosse community," Gardner said. "She led by example and others wanted to follow her."

In some ways, Tracy's suicide solidified Rachel's decision to pursue lacrosse at Virginia, and it gave her focus.

"I've experienced both sides of the recruiting process. It was all very overbearing and stressful, but after losing my sister, all of that seemed to fall away," she said. "I focused on where I needed to be to make myself happy."

Gardner vouched for Vander Kolk to Virginia coach Julie Myers. "How can you not be confident in a person like Rachel?" Gardner said. "She's a tremendous athlete, impressive student and an extremely hard worker."

With Gardner's support, Myers was sold.

"We knew Rachel was talented and worked really hard in the classroom and on the field, so that combined with Julie's unwavering support made it an easy decision for us," Myers said.

Vander Kolk committed to Virginia with the decision to major in aerospace engineering.

Use #NSPW16 to learn more about Suicide Prevention Week (Sept. 5-11) and World Suicide Prevention Day (Sept. 10).

And now she's the starting goalie as a freshman — an opportunity that would make any athlete simultaneously eager and terrified.

When I heard the news, I did not waste one second being concerned about Rachel's ability to handle the pressure of such a calling because, as a sophomore in high school, she stepped up to a calling much greater under a pressure far more constricting. Myers called upon her with equal confidence.

"I knew Rachel was accustomed to rising to challenges of all sizes and that her maturity and intelligence would be her guide and assets," Myers said.

Through the classic Vander Kolk perspective, Rachel has handled the calling with composure and maturity, atop high expectations for herself.

"I really think I've had to grow quickly to be ready for the spring season and there is always so much more room for improvement," she said. "But getting better one step at a time every day is all I really focus on."

Virginia advanced to the final four for the first time in seven years last season. Of course, the Cavaliers had the IWLCA Goalie of the Year in Liz Colgan. To get back there, they will rely on the unlikely poise of a freshman between the pipes.

"She has a huge presence, a high level of confidence, and good vision and awareness of what is unfolding in front of her," Myers said of Vander Kolk. "Her teammates have helped guide her and now she is helping guide them in return."

"She's very vocal already, leading us out there, even helping me out," senior co-captain and defender Kelsey Gahan said. "She's just a great person to have behind your back."

Asked how she resets herself when the stress of competition becomes too much for her, Vander Kolk responded, "You have to be able to let lacrosse teach you, not control you. The second it becomes negative is when you need to reevaluate."

Too often, lacrosse becomes the stressor players run away from, rather than the thing they run towards to escape the natural stresses of life. Vander Kolk epitomizes the proper relationship between an athlete and her sport: competitive by all accounts, but drawing the line where the relationship is mutually beneficial, not destructive.

Lacrosse is not about accolades, wins or championships, but that moment when it is you, your stick and your team. The opportunity to step away from life's demands and participate in the present is one of sports' greatest gift.

"Lacrosse has an expiration date on it, and I have to remind myself to enjoy the time I have left with a sport that has had such a huge impact on my life," Rachel said.

Such a profound, mature thought comes from a player inspired by something far greater than a sport, and it is with that perspective that we should all approach each practice, each day.

In gratitude, with humility, for a greater purpose. — Kate Hickman

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