Oct. 3, 2013
By Leah Howard, Michigan Athletics Public & Media Relations
It's Thursday in Ann Arbor, and the Wolverines' evening plans will be the same as most every other Thursday in which they are in town. Practice will wrap up around 5:30 p.m., and after getting in a cool down and stretch, shower and perhaps some treatment, the bulk of the team will grab a quick bite to eat before meeting up with student-athletes from various other teams at C.S. Mott Children's Hospital on the northern edge of Central Campus.
The student-athletes will then break into smaller groups and visit with several young patients in blocks of 10-15 minutes. The idea is to simply give the kids and their parents a break from their difficult reality. They sing songs, ask questions and provide cheerful encouragement. In essence, they turn the tables. After months and years of being in the spotlight, it is their turn to become adoring fans.
"I think, if you ask any athlete, it's the highlight of their week," said sophomore Lauren Thomas. "We love doing it; we love visiting with the kids and their families. It's amazing to me that they view us as inspirational, because they're the ones who really inspire -- with what they've been through and what they're still going through. But they look up to us so much. It's nice to know that we can give back to them just by spending time with them and brightening up their Thursday evenings. They brighten ours too."
The field hockey program is annually among Michigan's most active in the local community. In addition to its regular participation in visits to Mott, the Wolverines have been involved in mission trips, MSHARE, youth field hockey clubs and Mock Rock, as well as seven other local opportunities. In doing so, they continually pay tribute to the person whose name has become synonymous with community service and outreach within Michigan Athletics.
The athletic department established the Rachael Townsend Community Service Award in late 2003 to honor former Wolverine field hockey goalkeeper Rachael [Geisthardt] Townsend (1992-95), who died of mitral valve prolapse -- a cause for sudden cardiac death -- shortly after finishing the 26th annual Chicago Marathon on Oct. 12, 2003. She was 29.
Upon her graduation from Michigan, Townsend had become immersed in the Washtenaw County community while teaching and coaching at nearby Saline High School. She found passion working with and mentoring kids. The award, initially championed by the field hockey coaching staff and M-Pact Director Shari Acho, was a reflection of the positive impact that Townsend had throughout the community and among the student-athlete alumni.
Since its creation, the Rachael Townsend Community Service Award has been given annually to the male and female varsity athletic teams that have made the greatest commitment to service in the community. In 2009, Michigan implemented the Best Community Service (BCS) system to award points to student-athletes based on the number of service hours they participated in through Michigan Outreach from September through March. The Wolverine field hockey program has claimed the women's award several times over its 10-year span, most recently in 2009-10.
"It's obviously a very prestigious award and one that is valued highly by the student-athletes," said head coach Marcia Pankratz. "So, we're very proud that it is named after one of our student-athletes, and we're certainly proud of Rachael's legacy. As a student-athlete, she had a real charismatic attraction and selflessness to her. She immediately became a teacher and a coach down in Saline, and she just affected so many young people's lives as a mentor, coach, teacher and role model. It is a perfectly fitting award to be named after her."
On the field, Townsend -- then Rachael Geisthardt -- was a four-year mainstay in the Wolverine cage, first splitting time with Nicole Hoover as an underclassman before starting every game of her junior and senior seasons. She graduated with Michigan's record for most games played by a goalkeeper (62) and still ranks among the program's leaders in career saves (387) and career shutouts (17).
She was a competitor and a vocal leader on the field, skilled at giving direction and leading the team from the cage. But it was off the field where she had her biggest and most lasting impact.
"She was a great teammate," said Bree [Derr] Arvai (1993-96). "She was very good about making sure that everyone was involved and checking with in everyone, especially the freshmen, and making them feel welcome and an important part of the team. She definitely had a huge competitive spirit, always wanted to win, but she also had a big heart for her teammates."
That heart and compassion made her a perfect fit for her chosen field after college. A physical education major through Michigan's School of Kinesiology, where she earned three Academic All-Big Ten accolades, Townsend accepted a position teaching and coaching girls soccer at Saline High School, located about five miles south of Ann Arbor. Not long after, she married former Wolverine linebacker Brian Townsend (1988-91), now an assistant sport administrator within Michigan Athletics.
For seven years at Saline, she fostered the development of physical fitness among the high school students and led the girls' varsity soccer team to six consecutive league championships for the first time in school history. During that time, she also became involved with Michigan's KidSport program. In 2002, she was named the Sports and Athletics Leader of the Year by the Michigan Association of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance.
"She was phenomenal with kids," said Arvai. "The kids she coached just had a tremendous amount of respect for her. She did a very good job of being able to relate to the girls, no matter their background or ability, and I think she really had a huge impact on every girl she came in contact with. Even now, living in Saline, I've met people who knew her, and they have nothing but fabulous, wonderful things to say about her. Rachael just had a love for life and a love for people. She was very much a free spirit -- easygoing, lighthearted and always saw the positive in things."
"She definitely connected with everyone," said Brian Townsend, "but her passion was always the young people that she coached and taught. Her thing was to have fun but also to show women that they could be successful, have fun and have confidence. They could have a competitive edge and still be a woman. That's what she really wanted to get across to her student-athletes. That is how she carried herself. In my opinion, there is no one who had more life in them than Rachael."
Just prior to her death in October 2003, the Townsends relocated to Athens, Ohio, where Brian had taken a job as an assistant basketball coach at Ohio University. Rachael served as a dance instructor in the school's physical education department. She had just recently completed her master's degree from Eastern Michigan and was excited about her new job and ready to embrace a new challenge.
In Michigan, Rachael had been a part of the Governor's Council, visiting different elementary schools in Detroit and Flint to teach the children activities that they could do by themselves. Moving to one of the poorest counties in Ohio, she had plans to use that experience to implement a similar program in their new community but never got the chance to see it through.
The Wolverines will honor Rachael Townsend this Sunday (Oct. 6), in conjunction with their annual alumni weekend and in preparation for the 10-year anniversary of her death. Her mother, Mona, will be in attendance from Kelowna, British Columbia. Among the planned initiatives, U-M will have community-service pledge cards, encouraging fans to get active and involved in their respective communities. It's a simple gesture that goes to the heart of Townsend's lasting legacy at Michigan.
"With football, they teach you that when tough things happen, you proceed on with sudden change," said Brian Townsend, "which is, basically, how do you take a tough situation and make it a positive situation? With the loss of Rachael, I was out running about three weeks after her death, and it hit me -- sudden change. How do we make this right?
"We now have two scholarships in her name -- one goes to Saline High School and the other goes to physical education through the University of Michigan. We have combined her name with the community service award here at Michigan. Each year, when I look at the teams that are represented with the Rachael Townsend Community Service Award, I feel a lot of pride. I take pictures and send them to her mom. This weekend is an opportunity for her, after 10 years, to come back and actually see how Rachael has been appreciated and how we've used her name to grow forward and honor her. The greatest thing is our student-athletes use their opportunity to add to the community and help in many ways. So, to have her name attached to that, it's wonderful for the field hockey program, for her family and friends and for Michigan Athletics."