As part of recognizing the 25th anniversary of USA Lacrosse we’re looking back at some of the most impactful stories that we’ve shared in USA Lacrosse Magazine. This story on former Loyola women’s lacrosse coach Diane Geppi-Aikens was our March 2003 cover story.
THERE ARE STORIES THAT STICK WITH YOU FOREVER, and that’s what happened when Diane Geppi-Aikens entrusted me to share her story with the lacrosse world. A strong and vivacious woman, she had successfully overcome cancer scares in the past, but this time would be different, and she knew it.
Twenty years ago, I walked into her home in the Overlea neighborhood of Baltimore to find Diane sitting on the couch. Her face was swollen from the steroid treatments. She used a wheelchair. Diane knew the odds she faced, but she also knew she wouldn’t stop living. If she needed a reminder, it was right there in front of her during our interview. Her youngest daughter, Shannon, bopped in and out of the room with boundless energy.Diane cried. I cried. It was the hardest interview I’ve ever done.
Less than 24 hours later, I turned around the piece as the cover for our March 2003 edition. The headline: “Diane’s Story.” It was her story to tell. I just tried not to get in the way.
The story, as hard as it was to read, was well-received by the lacrosse community. One USA Lacrosse member reached out to me and said, “That needs to be a movie.”
I’m certainly not a movie producer, but the sentiment was not lost. People beyond the lacrosse world needed to hear Diane’s story. So on a quiet Friday, I contacted Sports Illustrated reporter Kelly King, who had Diane pen a first-person piece that led off SI’s famed Scorecard section of the magazine.
Through the hard work of Loyola’s women’s lacrosse SID David Rosenfeld, Diane’s story continue to spread well beyond the lacrosse and sports world. National morning shows on TV, local newspapers and television programs, ESPN Radio — Diane’s story was everywhere. Diane kept coaching Loyola. The Greyhounds won their first 14 games to rise to No. 1 in the national rankings before losing to Princeton in the NCAA semifinals.
A little over a month after that game, Diane died, but not before touching the lives of so many people.
Here’s the original story, published in March 2003, heading into her final season as a college lacrosse coach:
DIANE GEPPI-AIKENS CONSIDERS HERSELF LUCKY and that might be all you need to know to understand her spirit, will and desire.
Since 1995, Geppi-Aikens, the head women’s lacrosse coach at Loyola College, has fought and battled a recurring brain tumor. Three times in the last eight years she has had to undergo full craniotomy brain surgery procedures to remove the tumor. She’s endured radiation, chemotherapy, drugs. Through it all, she’s never missed a game, never stopped fighting.
Now the cancer is taking more than it ever has before. Her left leg and left arm are no longer functional. She gets around in a wheelchair. Her face is swollen. Still she laughs, still she smiles.
“I can still talk to my kids. I’m not in any pain,” said Geppi-Aikens. “How can you for anything more when you have a huge brain tumor in the middle of your head that’s eventually going to kill you. To be able to speak to your children, to be able to cognitively be okay not be in any pain. How lucky can you be?”
It’s that outlook that has made her so special to so many during a difficult time. In January, she received the NCAA’s annual Inspiration Award.
She has four children — a son, Michael, who is 17 and will attend Loyola next year, and three daughters, Jessica, 15, Melissa, 12, and Shannon, 8. Every day with them is a gift.
“My kids are old enough now that they can enjoy me,” said Geppi-Aikens. “I can still read books to them, I can still talk to them. For somebody to be in a position where you know you’re going to die, but yet you’re not in any pain and you can still enjoy your kids, you’ve got to think that’s a positive. You do think about the World Trade Center. How many people walked in there and wanted one minute back? I get those minutes every day and I’m very fortunate.”
Geppi-Aikens had her third craniotomy last January. She coached all of last season while undergoing chemotherapy treatments. But last fall she was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor in her brain stem.
“It’s been excruciating to watch her go through this, but I get great strength from watching her,” said Janine Tucker, one of her former players, a friend and the head coach at Johns Hopkins University. “I remember when she told me that the tumors were back — that they were more aggressive and there were more of them. We both knew what that meant, but then she said, ‘I’m going to keep fighting and cherish every day.’”
Geppi-Aikens doesn’t know how to give up and she’s not going to feel sorry for herself. Betsy Economou, who played for her at Loyola in the mid-1990s, tells the story of when Diane was pregnant with Shannon. When “morning sickness” hit her, she’d go off to the side of the field to get sick, not wanting her players to think she wasn’t tough enough. She’s not going to change now.
“I don’t feel sorry for myself. I don’t ever feel sorry for myself,” said Geppi-Aikens. “I get up in the morning and I try to function, fighting this thing while I’m kind of keeping a realistic aspect of it. I’m really lucky I’m not in any pain and I can still cognitively function to enjoy my kids and there’s a lot of people out there that can’t say that. In a lot of ways there’s a lot of positive. I’ve have one good leg and one bad leg. I have one good right arm and one bad one. There’s always a positive, always. I think that’s the way I live life and I think get that through my competition in sports.”
Sports have always been a big part of her life. Her aunt, Arlene Geppi, then the volleyball coach at Towson State University, talked her into trying volleyball instead of field hockey at Parkville (Md.) High School. She also played lacrosse and went on to a standout career in both sports as a player at Loyola. She was a four-year starter in both sports and a two-year captain. In lacrosse, she earned All-America honors as a goalie, set Loyola’s single-season save percentage record (.749) and was a member of the U.S. national team.
Coaching called after graduation, and her aunt’s prodding paid big dividends.
“I think I had it in my blood to coach and volleyball got me in the door,” said Geppi-Aikens.
She was named the head volleyball coach at Loyola, a position she held until 1990 and also served as an assistant lacrosse coach. In 1989, she took over the lacrosse program and the success has been nothing short of amazing. Her teams have gone 179-69, reaching six NCAA tournament semifinals and played for the national title in 1997. Twice she has been named the national coach of the year.
She feels blessed to have found coaching.
“To be able to have a passion about what you do for a living, I think is just special,” said Geppi-Aikens. “How many people get up in the morning and don’t even want to get up or don’t want to go to work? I have a passion for coaching and I have a passion for making a difference in young people’s lives and I think that’s what I’ve done best.”
COACHING HAS BEEN AN INTEGRAL PART OF HER LIFE and she’s not ready to change that. Despite her illness, Geppi-Aikens plans to be on the Loyola sideline this spring.
“I’m going to try to coach,” she said. “I think we’re good, so I think we’re gonna win some ball games. My dad is my caretaker and he watches me just about 24 hours a day. He’s the one that’s pushing the wheelchair and he’s going to follow the bus in his car with my wheelchair and he’s going to push me up and down the sideline and I’m going to coach this year. We’re big, we’re fast, we’re strong and we’ve got a great staff.”
The staff, she says, is what makes her desire to coach this year feasible. Associate coach Kerri Johnson played at Loyola and coached with Geppi-Aikens since her 1997 graduation. Krystin Porcella, another Loyola grad, is in her third year on the staff. Tom Ryan, a men’s professional player, is in his fifth year as a volunteer assistant. Johnson, in particular, has been invaluable.
“She’s not only an assistant, she’s a friend and that makes a huge difference in how things are approached,” said Geppi-Aikens. “She’s come over here and spent the night before and given my dad a break. If you have loyalty in an assistant coach, you have everything. She knows what she’s doing in the office and on the field, so you don’t have to worry about anything. That’s a huge help.”
GEPPI-AIKENS SPEAKS OF THIS UPCOMING SEASON like she has for each of the past 14 seasons. She has the same concerns as her colleagues. Her team is young. Loyola is no longer in the Colonial Athletic Association and can’t count on a conference championship to get a berth into the NCAA tournament.
“This year’s going to be a little different year as far as that goes,” she said. “We’re going to have to get in at-large and it’s going to be tough. But, we had a great fall. We competed against the top teams in the country and we did well. We’re big, we’re fast, we’re strong, but we have 13 freshmen, so we’re young.”
She’s excited about the season opener — March 4 against UMBC, a team coached by Monica Yeakel, one of her former players. In fact, each of the other three Division I women’s lacrosse programs in Baltimore are coached by one of her former players — Yeakel, Tucker at Johns Hopkins and Linda Ohrin at Towson. She’s really excited about an April 5 home game against Penn State that will be carried live on WMAR, the local ABC affiliate in Baltimore.
“I’ve waited 20 years for this TV game and I’m going to be on the sideline coaching,” she said.
Coaching won’t be easy, but she’s not ready to back down to anyone and she’s still in charge.
“Cognitively, I still think I’m one of the best coaches in the country,” she laughs. Her friend, Andrea Borowsky says, and laughs with her, “Hey, you got this side (touching her right arm) and your brain’s still going and your team still fears you. We took her to practice the other day. The next thing you know they’re around her just waiting for her to say something.”
Young people are impressionable and that’s been a driving force in her coaching career. Winning games is important. She cites the 1997 title game appearance and a victory that same year over Maryland that snapped Terrapins 50-game winning streak among her career coaching highlights. The Lacrosse Magazine article highlighting that triumph hangs in a frame in her Baltimore house.
But it’s what happens when you leave the field that’s really important. Her former players have let her know that.
“I’m getting a lot of cards and letters right now, and a lot of visitors, and it’s kind of coming back to me,” Geppi-Aikens said. “I’d say I’ve made some impact — more than just lacrosse on my players.”
“I’ve read Diane letters going back from players that played for her 14 years ago, people just telling her and saying to her that I wouldn’t be where I am now if you hadn’t …,” said Borowsky.
“She’s been my mentor since I’ve met her and she’s the reason I’m where I am today,” said Tucker. “She’s clearly my hero.”
It’s not just her former players that have reached out. Through a Caring Bridge website that Tucker helped set up, people can get updates on how she’s doing and sign a virtual guestbook to send notes to her. The notes have come in from all over the country. Coaching colleagues, parents at other schools, parents of former recruits that didn’t even go to Loyola, former men’s players at Loyola. Tears flow as she thinks about the support.
“The lacrosse community has always been just so great and I think that one of the reasons I coach is because of the lacrosse community,” said Geppi-Aikens. “For me, being in the situation that I am in with my brain tumor, they’ve just come out of the woodwork and just really supported me and my family in a time of need.
“Just Janine doing the website has taken the pressure off my parents answering the phone every five seconds. I’ve got four kids and I’m a single mom. People bringing meals, just that alone takes the pressure off me when they come home from school.”
She also gets support from her family.
“My mom and my dad, my sister, my aunt,” she said. “I have a lot of support internally and externally.”
The support — the emotional support she needs — comes from her children.
“Christmas time was more like family being around and not just presents,” she said. “Looking forward to that little kiss from Shannon in the morning, things like that.”
The next few months will not be easy.
“I’m going to go through this radiation and I’ve decided that I’ll get zapped a bit until they tell me what’s going on as far as the radiation, but I’m not going to try and experimental drugs because I don’t want to get sick,” she said. “I feel right now like I’m okay. So, I feel like I’m going to stay with the radiation and see what happens with that and if that doesn’t work then I think I’m not going to do anything. That’s my decision and I feel like I’m leaving life pretty good right now.”
The cancer has changed her in many ways.
“It’s been a learning experience for everybody the last couple of months,” she said. “I’m remembering that I’m human. So, I cry now and I used to not cry. I think that there’s more to life. People have to enjoy life and understand that it’s here today, gone tomorrow.”
But cancer won’t change who she is and that’s why she’ll continue to coach.
“You have to do what you have to do and I think coaching is part of what I have to do,” said Geppi-Aikens. “Taking care of my family is obviously something I have to do. I think I can balance both — I’ve been balancing both.”
Through it all, she’s been able to maintain her positive outlook.
“There’s always a silver lining,” she said. “People need to think about the positives out there and I think they can do that no matter what. Somebody always has it worse. Right now there’s somebody out there with a brain tumor that probably in a lot of pain to be honest with you, and not functioning well. As a matter of fact, I know that for a fact because I see that in the hospital every day. I think it’s amazing that I have this huge tumor in the middle of my brain steam and it’s growing very rapidly, yet I’m functioning fine and I still think there’s a lot of positive in my life.”
She has every right to, but refuses to ask, why her? That doesn’t stop others from asking the question.
“I asked her why does this have to happen to someone like you,” said Tucker. “She said that God chose me so that every person that I’ve come into contact with can be a better and stronger person.”
We made history together. Let’s ignite our future. Together.