A Portrait in Perseverance
The word adversity gets thrown around a lot in the world of sports, often referring to a bad bounce or a losing streak. But there is nothing on the ice that can compare to what the Yale women's ice hockey Class of 2010 has faced off it. As they get ready for their final games at Ingalls Rink this weekend, Yale's seniors know that they made it through challenges both great and small over the last four years the only way they know how: together.
The group hit it off quickly. Forward Mandi Schwartz (Wilcox, Sask.) can still recall meeting forward Caroline Murphy (Woodstock, Conn.) as a freshman.
"Murph will always be one of my best friends," Schwartz said. "I will always remember how upbeat and excited she was when we first met. She ran up to my room – I lived on the fifth floor – and she was so excited just to meet me."
Two other members of the class -- defenseman Alyssa Clarke (Donkin, N.S.) and forward Berit Johnson (Wayzata, Minn.) both wound up in the same residential college (Branford), and for the past three years they have been roommates.
"The way Berit remembers it I kind of gave her the cold shoulder when we met," Clarke joked. "But she's definitely the one I've been the closest to. We were defensive partners that year, and coach used to call us 'The puppies'."
The class' closeness would eventually be put to the test in ways that none of them could have imagined when they first arrived at Yale. They experienced plenty of ups and downs on the ice over their first two seasons. Their freshman season included a 10-3-2 run near the end that helped the Bulldogs earn a spot in the ECAC Hockey playoffs, but a pair of close losses at Harvard in the quarterfinals ended the year. Their sophomore season saw the team earn a playoff spot in dramatic fashion, beating RPI 3-2 at Ingalls Rink in the regular season finale, but once again Yale's post-season run ended with a pair of frustratingly close defeats – this time at St. Lawrence.
But during their junior year the Class of 2010 got a major dose of perspective. Schwartz, normally one of the team's hardest workers and most upbeat personalities, began the season struggling physically. As is her nature, she attempted to battle through the unexplained fatigue and pains by working harder, but in early December tests finally revealed what she was facing: acute myeloid leukemia. After the diagnosis was revealed to the team, the Bulldogs realized they had just one more night to spend with Schwartz before she had to fly home to Saskatchewan to begin chemotherapy. Schwartz' teammates rallied around her cause, and Johnson set up a CaringBridge website for her to provide updates on her treatment for all her family, friends and relatives.
"When I heard I was sick, everyone took care of me in one way or another," Schwartz said. "Murph never left my side. She stayed in my room that night. Berit took charge, e-mailed my professors and got the website set up on the Internet. It was so good to have my teammates with me."
The Bulldogs turned to each other for strength.
"It was a really difficult time for all of us," Johnson said. "I think Mandi probably handled it the best. She said 'I'm going to beat this. I'll be back.' After the initial shock, people pulled together and found ways to support her."
That support helped carry Schwartz through five rounds of chemotherapy and 130 days in the hospital. Last spring, she finished her treatment, was found to be in remission, and began working her way back into shape for a return to Yale. She reunited with her teammates in early January and is now practicing with the team. While she cannot play in games, she is now considered a junior academically and is able to return to play the 2010-11 season. For now, just her mere presence in practice appears to have had an impact on the team -- the Bulldogs won five of six right after reuniting with Schwartz.
"I don't think it's a coincidence that we started winning when she came back," Murphy said. "She's elevated our practices to another level. To see her out there after everything she's been through, I wasn't about to slack off."
The senior class also has had plenty of other reminders of just how precious life is. Shortly after Schwartz left last year, Clarke had a reoccurrence of a condition that she has been battling since the spring of her senior year in high school: she had an epileptic seizure. But as is typical of her classmates, Clarke downplays the notion that her condition is anything to feel sorry for her about.
"I only missed two games," Clarke said. "It wasn't a big deal."
Her roommate Johnson, though, sees what Clarke has to go through as part of managing her condition.
"It's definitely a tough thing," Johnson said. "I see how much it's something she has to be mindful of – make sure she's getting her rest, taking her medicine. She's handled that very well."
And, as if to provide one last challenge for the Class of 2010, this past Spring Murphy found out that her father, Col. David Murphy – a Green Beret, Ranger and Special Forces trooper in the U.S. Army – was being sent to Afghanistan and would have to miss her senior year.
"My dad is the reason I'm playing hockey," Murphy said. "He suggested I put on a pair of skates. He's always been extensively involved in the games. Not having him here for my senior year, as much as it was difficult for me, I'm sure it was very hard on him."
Murphy never let the difficult circumstances affect her trademark hard-working style on the ice, though.
"I know it's been tough for her," Johnson said. "She is really close with her whole family. She's done a really good job of trying to play through it. I'm really fortunate that my parents can come to every game. It's a reminder of how lucky I am. Murph has handled the situation so well. I can't imagine what it's like to have someone that far away, and at the same time being in a position of danger."
Through it all, the seniors have managed to rack up an impressive list of individual accomplishments. Clarke is a finalist for the NCAA's Frozen Four Skills Competition this year, and was honorable mention All-Ivy League as a sophomore. Murphy was elected Yale's captain this season. And Johnson, who is extensively involved in community service and also excels in the classroom, is Yale's nominee for the ECAC Hockey Student-Athlete of the Year Award. It's the same award her older sister, Kelsey Johnson '07, was a finalist for two years ago. Ironically, Berit at first wanted to avoid following her sister to Yale. Their father, Rob Johnson '68, was also a Yale graduate.
"I started out saying 'I'm definitely not going to Yale.'," Johnson said. "I wanted to go somewhere else, be my own person, not be compared to my sister. But my sister and my dad asked me to take a look at Yale and keep an open mind. My sister said the last thing she would want would be for me not to go to Yale just because of her. Once I got on campus, it seemed like such a great fit."
The sisters played together at Yale for one season, and made a lasting impression on those that played with them.
"Berit and her sister are both some of the most driven and ambitious people I've ever met," Murphy said. "They are bound to be successful."
After all that adversity, the Class of 2010 has now started receiving some well-deserved good news. In addition to Schwartz' return this past January, Murphy will get to see her father again this weekend when he returns just in time for the Senior Day ceremony.
"All he has is a two-week leave, and he managed to schedule it perfectly," Murphy said.
As the Bulldogs enter the last two weekends of the regular season, the Class of 2010 has led a young team to within reach of another ECAC Hockey playoff appearance. As Yale's captain, Murphy gives credit to her classmates for helping her in a leadership role.
"We have such a small senior class, and both Berit and Clarkie have really helped me out," Murphy said. "Leading the team really was a group effort. They always had my back, and I really appreciate that."
And when looking back at all of the adversity she and her classmates have faced, Murphy explains their response simply.
"We adjusted," Murphy said. "We can say we've grown together and dealt with a lot together … I wish there were words to articulate what a privilege and an honor it is being their classmate and getting to know them. I wouldn't have wanted to spend my four years with anyone else."
Story by Sam Rubin '95 (firstname.lastname@example.org), Yale Sports Publicity