From April 7-13, the NCAA celebrates Division III Week -- seven days devoted to the accomplishments of the student-athletes in D3. The goal of the celebration is to raise awareness of Heidelberg and other D3 schools across the nation.
This story is third in a six-part series highlighting the
student-athletes at Heidelberg University. It was written by
Jeff Garvin, '04, Director of Athletic Marketing &
For more information on Heidelberg's D3 Week activities,
D3 Week homepage.
Success as a Division III student-athlete is predicated on passion and proportion -- balancing academic responsibilities and athletic duties while somehow maintaining relationships with friends and family.
During her sophomore season, goal-oriented and happy-go-lucky Heidelberg University soccer player Rachel Gilbert had struck that balance. In the classroom, she was doing well as a business administration and public relations double major. On the soccer field, she worked her way into head coach Nick Spell's starting 11 and netted her first collegiate goal. Personally, Gilbert and her boyfriend Nate Petersen took a major step in their long-term relationship – by adopting Diesel, a floppy-eared beagle.
On Monday, Oct. 12, Gilbert received a text message from Petersen's mother.
I don't know how to tell you this, but Nate was killed in a car accident this morning.
Gilbert's world crumbled.
With her teammate Hannah Gregoire driving, Gilbert raced home to surround herself with her family. As she grieved, she missed almost a full month of school.
But her passion for soccer and her bond with teammates kept Gilbert connected to the team and the university.
"I went to every game while I was away from school," said Gilbert. "I knew I wasn't going to play, but I just needed to around the girls. They were my support system, my backbone."
As Gilbert watched her teammates play Ohio Northern, psychology professor Dr. Traci Stark reached out to her. Though Stark only taught Rachel in one course, Gilbert was grateful for the conversation.
"She has reached out to me in so many ways," said Gilbert. "She told me that she was there if I wanted a shoulder to cry on or someone to eat chips with. It meant so much to me. I don't think I've ever verbally thanked her for that."
After missing four games, the Chardon native returned to campus and played in the final two matches of the season. But all season long, especially the games after Nate's passing, something felt different.
Following the season, a pregnancy test confirmed that Gilbert was expecting.
"It was an incredible shock," said Gilbert. "At his funeral, Nate's family was sad because he was the last Petersen with an opportunity to pass along the family name. The baby was such an unexpected blessing."
With the news came a major decision for Gilbert. She had to decide whether she would continue with her education at Heidelberg. With her family more than two hours away in northeast Ohio, it was a difficult decision.
"Knowing I was pregnant, I knew I had to provide for my child, especially since Nate wouldn't have that chance," said Gilbert. "Without the support of everyone, I don't know if I would've come back."
Nathan Petersen was born on May 13, just weeks after Gilbert finished her sophomore year at Heidelberg.
Over the summer, Gilbert experienced the highs and lows associated with raising a newborn. In August, Gilbert's mom, Jennifer, watched Nathan so Rachel could attend the preseason soccer camp.
"At first, I didn't want to let him go for those few weeks," said Gilbert. "I am thankful that my mom gave me the opportunity to get back to soccer and to my teammates."
Prior to the start of the school year, Nathan and his mom were reunited in Tiffin. With help from Gregoire and former HU soccer player Brittany Labry, Gilbert settled into the season and the semester.
"Rachel has shown a lot of fortitude and continues to strive forward in her pursuit of her goals," said Spell, in his eighth year as head coach. "As a leader on the team, she is able to show other players how to find solutions in the face of adversity. Rachel is an inspiration for us."
Gilbert credited Spell and assistant coach Blaine Bishop for their patience and understanding.
"Coach Blaine and Coach Spell have proven to me that they are there for me no matter what," said Gilbert. "They have supported me through this whole process."
Nathan, who raises his eyebrows expressively like his father did, hangs out with Gregoire or Labry while his mom attends classes.
"I enjoy every moment I get to see him and watch him grow and develop," said Gregoire, also a junior. "I do not believe Rachel realizes what she does for our team. I know I am not alone when I say that I look up to her and respect her as a teammate, leader and my best friend."
Gilbert has once again been able to blend all of her responsibilities – maternal, academic and athletic. Though she lives in an off-campus apartment, she is a visible member of the campus community.
"Nathan seems to enjoy being on campus and being around my friends," said Gilbert. "Every time I brought him to a basketball game, Dr. Stark offered to babysit."
Despite the hardships, Gilbert is still on track to graduate in May 2015.
After earning her degree, Gilbert wants to work in marketing for non-profit organization. She hopes to have roots planted in a supportive community -- similar to the one she found at Heidelberg -- before her son starts kindergarten.