By Kathleen Lopez
Just a couple weeks shy of the one-year anniversary of their former assistant coach’s death, the Notre Dame women’s rowing team took time to honor and remember her by passing out information about the deadly disease that claimed her in an effort to educate the Notre Dame community.
Kerry O’Keefe, former Notre Dame women’s assistant rowing coach, died from cervical cancer at the young age of 33 in September of 2001. Just a short time later, the women’s rowing team decided to get involved with educating people about this pesky killer.
“We decided to do this when our former coach died from cancer,” senior rower Becky Campbell said.
“The 2002 senior class had her as a coach during their freshmen season. They decided last year that this event would be a great way to remember her.”
O’Keefe started at Notre Dame in the fall of 1998 when head coach Martin Stone hired her as an assistant coach. She was instrumental in getting the newest Notre Dame sport off the ground, and on the water, by serving as the coach of the novice team.
After one year at Notre Dame, O’Keefe was named head coach for the new women’s rowing program at Southern Methodist University in Dallas for the 1999-2000 season. Soon after the conclusion of her first season at SMU, O’Keefe was called by legendary rowing coach Wendy Davis – who had just been hired to lead the newly created women’s rowing program at the University of Minnesota.
She was quickly hired by Davis to coach the novice team. The first novice eight proved to be Minnesota’s most successful boat that season after finishing second in the grand finals at the 2001 Lexus Central Sprints in Oak Ridge, Tenn. During the same time period though, O’Keefe, who had been diagnosed with cancer earlier that year, saw her health quickly deteriorate, and after a courageous fight, she lost her battle with the horrible disease on Sept. 23, 2001.
Wondering what they could do to help other victims of cancer, the current Irish rowing team joined with the Saint Joseph Regional Medical Center Women’s Task Force for the event.
The Women’s Task Force is a group of cancer survivors who try “to raise awareness and develop initiatives for women’s health issues,” according to their website. It is aimed at promoting education about the issues involving women’s health in an effort to keep women healthy. It also established Gyna-Girls, a support group for ovarian cancer sufferers and survivors.
“We met with Coach Stone last winter and asked if we could team up with him to promote awareness of cancer,” Nancy White, founder of the Gyna-Girls support group said.
“We thought if we could start getting the word out about ovarian cancer, but we couldn’t think about how to exactly do it.
“I talked to the team last winter and the girls who had Coach O’Keefe were familiar with ovarian cancer. We took our idea about today’s event to them and they came to that meeting with an idea for an event that we might do next year.”
White, a cancer survivor herself, helped organize the Notre Dame event. She, in conjunction with the rowing team, wanted the event to educate people about the warning signs and treatment options for cancer. The groups did not solicit funds, but several people dropped off small donations to aid in the cause. They also sold special aprons – known as the aprons of knowledge as well.
Ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer death among women in the United States. It causes more deaths than any other reproductive tract cancer, and often times, symptoms of the disease go unnoticed or are misdiagnosed which is why distributing the information is so important.
The rowing team took time out of their training schedule to take part in the project in which they teamed up with not only the Women’s Task Force but also the Notre Dame Alumni Association. The Alumni Association aided the effort by donating a large amount of All-American Cookbooks featuring recipes from former Notre Dame football All-Americans for the event.
“It is great to see so many members of the team out here at today’s event,” Stone said.
“Community service is an important part of the student experience here at Notre Dame. I am glad we were able to find such a worthy cause to support, especially one that is so close to our team.”
This event does not mark the end of the relationship between the women’s rowing team and the Women’s Task Force. Both groups plan on partnering for another event in the next year. Ideas for the events include getting information into the women’s dorm on Notre Dame’s campus.
To find out more information about the Women’s Task Force and the Gyna-Girls, please visit www.womenstaskforce.org.