Skip to Content

Amy Donaldson: The bond of student-athletes transcends sport, schools as support soothes devastated U community

SALT LAKE CITY — From Logan to St. George, student-athletes and their coaches rummaged through the closets of friends or family searching for gear they normally couldn't be paid to wear.

Among them was Weber State tennis player Sara Parker.

The senior borrowed a red shirt from her fiancé, scrawled a message of support on purple poster board and drove from Ogden to Salt Lake City to stand in solidarity with a heartbroken University of Utah community Wednesday night.

It didn't matter that she didn't know Lauren McCluskey, the Utah track athlete who was shot and killed in the parking lot of her on-campus apartment Monday night. What did matter is that Parker and her fellow student-athletes find a way to show Lauren's family — both her biological family and her athletic family — that they are not alone in their anguish.

"I thought it was important to come show support for her and her family and teammates because I can't imagine what they're going through," said Parker, who also gathered with other Weber State athletes Wednesday morning to pose for a photo they put on social media of them dressed in red displaying the block U with their hands.

"It was just such a horrific and terrible thing," she said as the crowd slowly dispersed after the 30-minute ceremony and candle-light vigil honoring the life and legacy of the 21-year-old Washington native.

“Lauren McCluskey was an outstanding young woman. She was a joy to coach.”

Utah track and cross country coach Kyle Kepler

In the outpouring of love and support from athletic departments at every college and university in Utah, as well as around the Pac-12, it became obvious there was something special about the bond that exists among student-athletes, even those from different schools.

Two hours after the vigil honoring McCluskey, the Utah volleyball team linked arms with their opponents for the night, Washington State, which happens to be the school in Lauren's hometown and where both her parents work. The teams and fans offered a moment of silence to honor Lauren as her picture was displayed on the electronic scoreboard, and the Cougars wore the same decals of a winged foot with Lauren's name on it that the Utes wore.

They were doing what Utah athletic director Mark Harlan advised them to do during the vigil Wednesday night.

"Take care of each other," he said, "Get through this together."

The life of a student-athlete is uniquely demanding. There would be heartbreak, outrage, and likely a similar outpouring of love and support if Lauren hadn't been a student-athlete.

But the fact that she represented the school in athletic competitions and community projects ripped a hole in the department that is often the only thing outsiders know about a school.

Coaches recruit players from around the world to compete. They count on the school community to make the student-athlete feel included. They — and the students — trust that these young athletes will be embraced for their willingness to give their talents to a university that binds them all.

"Being a student-athlete is a special thing, and you have to share that," Harlan said, noting that Lauren did so with excellence in the classroom, her accomplishments in her sport, and quiet acts of service in the community.

The rigorous physical requirements, athletic standards, community commitments, and intense scrutiny create the kind of experience that is difficult to understand if you haven't had both the privilege and challenge of trying to navigate it.

If anyone outside of her Utah teammates understands what Lauren brought to her team, to her school, to the community that embraces the school's programs, it's people like Sara Parker.

It's the other student-athletes from 20 programs, male and female, who feel her loss acutely, even if they never met her.

That's because they share a rare and unusual bond.

They intuitively understand what brought her so far from home, who understand how her sport created a new kind of family, and who understand what it's like to call your mom, even when she's another time zone away, just to keep you company as you walk home from a night class.

"The most tragic thing of all is when (I read) that she was on the phone with her mom," Parker said. "I do it all the time. That was one of the hardest things … When I finished reading about it, I called my mom right away and said, 'Mom, just so you know, I love you.'"

Lauren's coach and teammates put their pain on display so the world would know the magnitude of their loss. The crowd showed up so the team might feel less alone in their grief.

"Lauren McCluskey was an outstanding young woman," said track and cross-country coach Kyle Kepler. "She was a joy to coach."

Three of the team's seniors — Eliza Hansen, Raynee Helm-Wheelock and Mesa Weidle — stood together trying to put into words what they've lost, who they loved.

"Lauren was always a driven athlete and gave 110 percent to everything she did," Hansen said. "This loss is devastating."

Weidle sobbed as she tried to describe how the girl she met on a recruiting trip five years ago blossomed into the sister and teammate she loved for reasons that might begin with sports but exceed anything athletic.

"She was an amazingly genuine and caring person," Helm-Wheelock said. "She will be missed."

It was gymnast Shannon McNatt, who is also the president of the student Crimson Council, who reminded those gathered in front of the steps covered in flowers, that they can continue to be good teammates to Lauren McCluskey.

"No one is really dead until the ripples they cause in the world die way," she said, quoting Terry Pratchett. "We are her ripples."