PHOTO BY PEYTON WILLIAMS

Kerstin Kimel has led Duke to 19 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances. In 2015, she led the Blue Devils to the national semifinals while battling breast cancer.

Symbol of Strength


As a stiff wind drifted across the practice field off Frank Bassett Drive, directly behind Koskinen Stadium, the cages stood still, but the white netting swayed. The Duke women’s lacrosse players could tell coach Kerstin Kimel was anxious — and it didn’t have anything to do with their upcoming scrimmage against Towson.

Kimel answered a phone call, pacing across the turf. That seemed odd to Kerrin Mauer, the Blue Devils’ All-American attacker.

“She never answers calls at practice,” Mauer thought.

In that moment, on that frigid January 2015 day, Kimel received news that changed her life. She had breast cancer.

Kimel, diagnosed after having a biopsy of a sentinel lymph node the day before, would need three surgeries to remove a tumor and surrounding tissue with residual cancer cells, plus radiation and chemotherapy. She could have the surgeries before the season started, but her treatment would extend from February to June.

Dr. Gregory Georgiade of the Duke Cancer Center performed the surgeries.

“The day of my second surgery, my surgeon walks in and says, ‘There’s lymph node involvement,’” Kimel said. “That was a real blow. Right then and there, it was, ‘Wow, I have to have the full entire treatment,’ and I was really upset.”

But Georgiade knew how to get Kimel to stop feeling sorry for herself.

“You just have to get over it,” he told her. “If you had one of your players sitting across your desk who had a tough injury to deal with, you would not let her sulk."

Kimel’s biggest concern was how her cancer would affect her husband, Jack, and their three children — Caroline, now 16, Claire, 14, and Mac, 6. And how would her team take it?

“She is a caretaker,” said then-Duke assistant Amanda Barnes, now head coach of East Carolina’s fledgling program. “That’s her nature. You don’t think that people who do all the right things could get cancer — and she did.”

It took Kimel a long time to tell her team. The 2015 Blue Devils had big potential. They were ranked No. 6 nationally with four preseason All-Americans. Kimel had just had her contract extended through 2020.

“The last thing I wanted was the season to be about me,” she said.


“Our team and that season got me through those eight treatments without a doubt.” — Duke coach Kerstin Kimel


Kimel worried that the effects of her chemotherapy, like losing her hair, would become a distraction. She insisted that nothing change about the team’s daily operations. That included her being there for them, on the sidelines and in the locker room.

“She coached us the same and had the same expectations for us, which was huge,” Maurer said. “She is probably the strongest woman I know. Thinking back, I don’t know how she did it, but she did it so gracefully that I hope if anyone I ever knew needed a role model, she would be the first person I would send them to.”

The Monday before the Towson scrimmage, Kimel pulled the seniors aside first and explained her diagnosis, hoping she could lean on them for support and leadership of the team. Kimel, who started the Duke program as a 24-year-old in 1996, would learn of at least 10 current, former or future players whose mothers had cancer.

“It really made her so human to us,” Blue Devils assistant Lauren Morton said. “Those seniors committed when they found out in that moment. ‘We’re doing this for you.’”

Kimel’s players texted her every day she went to the cancer center, got pink extensions in their hair, wore pink socks on senior day to honor breast cancer awareness and recorded a video with messages of support and laughter for her last day of chemotherapy in June 2015.

“Our team and that season got me through those eight treatments without a doubt,” Kimel said.

Samantha Ekstrand, the IWLCA attorney and also Kimel’s neighbor, and Ekstrand’s sister, one-time Duke assistant Stefanie Sparks Smith, organized Duke alumni to start a fund to buy groceries for Kimel and hire a local chef to make meals.

“We just tried to find practical and meaningful ways to make their life a little easier, a little more comfortable, and if we could, less stressful, so that the Kimel family could focus on Kerstin getting better,” Ekstrand said.
 








Ekstrand named the fund “Duke Lax Love,” a saying that traces back to 2006, when Kimel’s team found itself unexpectedly entangled in the firestorm surrounding the Duke men’s lacrosse team. Three players faced rape charges that ultimately were proven baseless. David Evans, Colin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann were innocent — and the final four-bound Blue Devils women were prepared to support them.

Kimel mentioned to a local reporter that Duke might wear wristbands or perform another gesture to demonstrate their beliefs. It made front-page headlines the next day and became low-hanging fruit for national sports critics like Stephen A. Smith and Dan Patrick.

“My Blackberry started to blow up with messages,” Kimel said.

Upon arriving in Boston, Kimel sat down her team in the Boston University locker room, again addressing the Blue Devils with a calm demeanor and sense of strength. Ultimately they decided to inscribe the men’s team motto, “No Excuses, No Regrets,” on wristbands. Some players wrote messages on their legs in blank ink, while others, like center Rachel Sanford, wrote “innocent” on her headband, because she knew she would appear on television taking the draw.

“Wow,” Kimel said. “Talk about courageous.”




PHOTO BY GEORGE JENNISON

Duke alumni started a "Duke Lax Love" fund used to buy groceries for Kimel and hire a local chef to make meals as she underwent treatment.


But it was Kimel who stood out for supporting the Duke men’s lacrosse players when others in the campus community shunned them. Ekstrand, whose law firm represented more than 30 players in the proceedings, recalled pot-banging protests calling out the “blue wall of silence,” since the players would not admit to the allegations. Those who showed support were ostracized and chastised, Ekstrand said, but “in the midst of all of that unrest and hostility, Kerstin Kimel stood strong behind her colleague, Mike Pressler, and his players and spoke out. History not only proved her right, it shone a light on her strength of character and integrity.”

Kimel channeled the resolve of her 2006 players as she prepared for the fight of her life in 2015. She showed up to practices, even if it meant coaching from a stool and even if it was immediately after chemotherapy. She would even bike to the cancer center for her treatments.

“Again in 2015, adversity knocked on Kerstin’s door. This time it was personal,” said Notre Dame coach Christine Halfpenny, a former Duke assistant. “She showed everyone that she had the courage to get through her treatment and the season, with a smile on her face. Again, she was a rock for her team, her staff, her peers — everyone.”

The Blue Devils went all the way to the final four, bowing out against North Carolina in the NCAA semifinals. The season left a lasting impression on Kimel’s players.

“Kerstin always talks about wearing many hats,” Maurer said. “She’s a mom, she’s a coach, and now she’s a survivor. In this life, I’m waiting to see a hat that she can’t wear because of how much courage she has in every aspect of her life.”