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April 7, 2009

Tech's Rachel Culp has used sports to triumph over some tough times

By: Jimmy Robertson

Rachel Culp

Even those without a fundamental knowledge of the game of women’s lacrosse couldn’t help but be impressed on this unquestionably miserable day.

On a 38-degree afternoon in which the methodical rain that cascaded down on Blacksburg made Thompson Field a veritable purgatory for watching any sporting event, the Tech women’s lacrosse team battled the fourth-ranked team in the country, North Carolina. Roughly 10 minutes into this affair, the smattering of water-repellant fans of the orange and maroon started witnessing grace in motion.

It first came when, with multiple Tar Heels velcroed to her, she caught a sliver of Jessica Nonn’s jersey out of the corner of her eye and lofted a blind pass right to the perfect spot. Nonn immediately and easily deposited it into the net, a goal that marked Tech’s second of the game and cut UNC’s lead to 3-2.

Then, a few moments later, she struck with such exactness. Again, with a couple of Tar Heels practically sewed to her right flank, she made a deft fake, freed up her stick, and whizzed a carefully placed laser into the back right corner of the net with surgical precision to tie the match at 3.

Maybe her best came in the second half after teammate Allie Emala made a fine defensive play that led to a Tech breakaway. She effortlessly sped past a Tar Heel defender and received the pass from Emala, and at that point, UNC goalie Logan Ripley could only strike a submissive pose. A sweet juke later, she scored her second goal.

By the end of the match, a lacrosse novice could make even this astute deduction:

Rachel Culp was the best player on Tech’s squad – and maybe the best on the field.

Tech lost 12-8, a respectable and predictable showing for a rebuilding program. Culp scored two goals and notched the one assist, also respectable and predictable.

After all, she truly is grace in motion, so athletic and yet so smooth and efficient. She moves with undefined fluidity and wastes no movement on the lacrosse field and, like most great athletes, she’ll never be able to explain exactly why.

For her, it’s just – well – easy. Lacrosse is easy for Rachel Culp.

Which is exactly contrary to what everything else has been for her.

Life, in general, has been anything but easy.

Joel Culp remembers the day and with not much fondness. He and his wife, Meredith, gathered Rachel and their son, Jamie, into the living room at their home in Kent, Ohio, for the proverbial heart-to-heart. This time, it actually was that.

They informed their 8-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son that the doctors suspected Meredith had a rare neurological disease called Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD, for short). The name itself meant nothing to the children, but an explanation of the symptoms and the prognosis provoked the expected response.

“They were angry at us for not telling them sooner,” Joel said. “But we didn’t really know what to tell them. There was some confusion. The doctors thought for a while that it might be Huntington’s disease.”

A protein virus or bacteria called a prion causes CJD and the symptoms include dementia and memory loss, along with a variety of physical ailments. It eerily resembles a more familiar disease to most – Alzheimer’s. The symptoms only present themselves during the middle-age years. There is no treatment and there is no cure.

It is, indeed, rare. Studies show this disease attacks one person out of a million every year.

Yet the gene that carries the virus is hereditary, so the Culp family had been through this rarity once before. Meredith Culp’s mother passed from the exact same thing.

After Meredith’s diagnosis, the family wasted nary a second, spending as much time together as possible. Joel Culp remodeled a room for his wife, flatly refusing to consider the thoughts of putting her into an adult care facility.

Rachel Culp

“We cared for her for the duration,” he said. “I wanted the kids to see her. I could have put her into some nursing home, but I wasn’t going to have any of that. I wanted the kids to have access to her and for her to be able to see them.”

After a two-year battle, Meredith Culp went to a better place on November 7, 1997, at the age of 48. Like with birthdays and anniversaries, the Culps will always remember that particular date. It is their family day of infamy.

“When we sat down when I was in third grade and they told me my mom was sick, it was kind of difficult to comprehend when you’re 8,” Rachel said. “It took a long time to understand what was going on and what was happening. We had a pretty good support system in Kent and a lot of people helped out. But it was difficult to comprehend, just the magnitude of the situation.
“By the time I was in fifth grade, she passed away. It was very difficult for the family, and it’s been a struggle ever since.”

Mindful of the overwhelming grief brimming within his children, Joel Culp set about speeding up the healing process of his family’s fractured lives. The following summer after Meredith’s funeral, the family went with their church on a mission trip to the Dominican Republic and helped build an orphanage.

“The kids weren’t too pleased,” Joel said. “They thought I was ruining their summer. But I wanted them to see that people have it much worse than we do. As it turned out, that was a very important event in our lives – in a positive way.”

While that trip certainly touched their core, it wasn’t the overriding cure-all for their grief, which they faced anew once they returned home. Rachel, so young and so soon to enter the all-important teenage years, needed a place to retreat from all of life’s hassles.

She found the perfect spot – in sports.

With her dad having played lacrosse and her mom having played tennis, both at Wooster College in Ohio, Rachel seemingly was destined to play sports.

It just took a little time to sort out which ones.

Her dad, who once worked on a ski patrol, strapped skis on her at the age of 3. The boots were a little too big, but he resorted to that ever-versatile product known as duct tape to keep them on her tiny feet.

She also joined the local T-ball team and a passion soon emerged. Once she got too old for T-ball, she stubbornly refused to play softball and remained staunchly adamant that she be allowed to play baseball.

So the Culps did the only thing they could do. To pacify their daughter, they petitioned the local parks and rec department to let her play – and they won.

“She did well with baseball,” Joel said. “She could play every position on the field.”

She obviously liked the challenges that boys presented because, around the age of 8, she laced up the skates and played on an ice hockey team. She became so good at that sport that she ended up with a roster spot on the Lady Barons, a traveling ice hockey team.

That flirtation lasted a couple of years until her mom passed.

“I just couldn’t afford to keep her on the travel hockey team,” Joel said. “They’d go to Canada and all over, but I couldn’t afford it. It broke my heart.”

Perhaps it turned out to be a blessing. Perhaps her mother’s death actually marked the birth of something, maybe a newfound passion for Rachel. Perhaps it spawned something that would change her life forever – and for the better.

Not long after giving up hockey, Rachel decided to try the sport her father loved and the one at which her brother also excelled – lacrosse. She watched her brother and his friends toss the ball around or play out in the yard, and being the ever fearless one, she never shied from asserting herself in these impromptu sessions regardless of her age and physical limitations.

It was a common occurrence in those days. The annoying sister not just trying to keep up with big brother, but actually thinking she could out-do him.

“I hated it at first. I couldn’t get the hang of it,” Rachel said of lacrosse. “The throwing and catching, I couldn’t do it all. My dad kept making me try it, and I hated not being able to do something that my brother could do. So that was the beginning of it. If he could do it, I had to be able to do it.”

“We definitely had a little rivalry thing going,” Jamie said. “I used to pick on her a bit. It didn’t matter if we were out there playing street hockey or football, she’d be out there trying to compete. She hung in there. She was way better than any other girl.”

Rachel Culp’s life hasn’t always been easy, but she was all smiles before the match with ODU - and afterward when her game-winning assist helped Tech to a 11-10 victory in double overtime.

Rachel ended up selecting basketball and lacrosse as her sports of choice. The fast pace of both kept her mind off her mom for brief periods of time.

But tragedy – and CJD – came crashing into their lives once again. Almost three years after watching her mother depart this world, she and the rest of the family bid farewell to her uncle, Glenn Menk III, who lost his battle with this insidious disease.

His death stripped open those old scars, ever reminders of the family’s vulnerability. Searching again for that escape, she and Jamie hurled themselves headfirst into their sports’ passions. She ultimately became a two-sport standout in lacrosse and basketball.

“When I look back on it,” Joel said. “I really do think both of them pursued sports to block out everything.”

“Those things are out of my control,” Rachel said. “Every time something difficult happens – and I’ve been this way my whole life – I get back to work and try to simplify it. I try to focus on what I can control.

“I’ve been able to turn to sports as an outlet. It’s been that way my whole life. It’s a lot easier than everything else.”

Jamie ultimately graduated not long following his uncle’s death, and after a semester at Ohio State – and knowing how short precious life can be – he decided to pursue his utmost dream, bolting for Colorado and pursuing a career as a professional snowboarder, something he continues to do. His departure left another void in Rachel’s life, but he needed something different and he sensed a future change in his sister’s life.

“I knew what I had to do,” he said. “And I could tell she was going to be okay. I knew she was going to go away to school.”

She did. And lacrosse made it happen.

“I knew they had a good football team,” she said.

That was the extent of Rachel’s knowledge of Virginia Tech during her senior year at Theodore Roosevelt High.

It’s easily forgiven. After all, she grew up in a state where dotting the “I” is a bigger fall tradition than Grandma’s turkey on Thanksgiving and where the locals firmly believe Archie Griffin’s mug should be carved in the limestone at Mt. Rushmore. Some things resonate a little more deeply in the minds of teenagers concluding their pre-college years.

But the Tech women’s lacrosse coach at the time, Tami Riley, invited Culp to come down for a visit. And like most who visit Blacksburg for the first time, she immediately fell headlong into happiness with the surroundings. Clicking with the girls on the team was simply added gravy.

She rarely played as a freshman, though, scoring six goals in a rather gloomy 14 games. Her inaugural college campaign served as a wicked lacrosse stick upside the head.

Unable to accept status quo and unwilling to succumb to the dejection, she summoned her inner fire displayed so regularly when she roughhoused with her older brother and his pals back in Kent. She stayed in Blacksburg during the offseason, running routinely and peppering the backs of the nets with shots on a daily basis.

She has started every game since, a streak of 47 consecutive games heading into the American game on April 4. She has scored no fewer than 25 goals in any season since then and recently scored her 100th, becoming just the sixth Tech player ever to do so.

“My freshman year, I didn’t start or play that often and I didn’t want to have that feeling again,” she said. “So I just worked until I wasn’t at that point any more. I never take a summer break away from it. I never wanted that feeling again. I wasn’t okay with it. I wanted to do everything I could to make sure it didn’t happen.”

Still, it hasn’t always been easy. Riley departed in late June of 2006, and Tech AD Jim Weaver hired Katrina Silva to head the program. While Culp has scored a lot of goals, she hasn’t been a part of a lot of victories, a frustration for any great athlete, and Silva booted a lot of Culp’s classmates for a violation of team rules this past fall, robbing her of some longtime on-field relationships.

Times, though, appear to be changing. Tech rattled off four straight wins during one stretch this season, with Culp scoring a career-high seven goals in a win over Davidson and then adding six goals in a 16-14 overtime win over BC – the Hokies’ first ACC victory since joining the league.

In that one, Culp scored the game-tying goal – and then for good measure, added the game-winner.

“Beating Boston College,” she said when asked of her most memorable moment. “Getting that first ACC win, that’s huge. Very cool.”

Joel Culp, who now lives in Denver near Jamie and sells emergency medical supplies, flew across the country to see the Hokies play a home match against Old Dominion on March 28, a game that marked Senior Day. During the pregame ceremonies honoring the seniors, father and daughter walked onto the field arm-in-arm, and mother did, too, only in spirit.

“Every day, every game, every milestone … there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about her,” Rachel said. “She never saw me play lacrosse, and that’s something I’ll always regret. So I think about her a lot on game days.”

This particular game went into double overtime, and Rachel treated her father to the greatness Tech fans have witnessed throughout her career. In the second overtime, Rachel – a magnet for Monarch defenders on this afternoon – fielded a pass from Katie Rotanz, but instead of firing off a wild shot amidst the timber in front of the net, she nimbly slipped a pass to Nonn, who won the game with a rather routine goal.

Rachel & Joel Culp

Her dad unquestionably saw her sacrifice. But then, he knows all about her sacrifices.

“I see so much of Meredith in her,” Joel said. “Like Meredith, she has her life together. She knows what she wants, and if she doesn’t, she’ll put in the work to find out. She’s used the disappointment and pain and channeled it positively.”

Rachel’s storied career will soon be over, but decisions are soon to follow.
Tough decisions.

Life decisions.

A superb student – a two-time selection to the ACC’s all-academic team – she graduates next December with a degree in biology and contemplates going to medical school. She also ponders getting into the coaching profession and teaching young girls the game in which she flourishes.

But the elephantine question weighing on her mind is the test – and not one taken in a classroom.

Doctors have told both Rachel and Jamie that they can be tested to see if they carry the gene that predisposes them to the virus that leads to CJD. Possessing the gene doesn’t necessarily mean they are guaranteed to contract the disease, so it comes down simply to wanting to know.

Ever the free spirit, Jamie refuses to take the test, preferring to live life as it comes.

“It doesn’t make a difference to me,” he said. “I’m going to live life to the fullest. But Rachel’s got more of a plan for her life. She’s got certain things to take into consideration.”

And thus, Rachel wages the war within herself.

“I don’t know. I didn’t want to deal with it [the test] while I was in college,” she said. “I just figured I may as well focus on normal things. My mom never got tested and she decided to get married and have a family. But my personality is one that … I don’t know. It’s a huge debate. I think about it a lot. I don’t know what I’m going to do.

“That may be one reason I’m putting off med school. If I have it, I don’t want to spend another ‘X’ amount of time in school when I could be doing other things like traveling or coaching or other stuff. You know, things that wouldn’t stress me out. Not that it wouldn’t be worth it to be a doctor. I just haven’t decided if that’s the path I’m going to take.”

“It’s entirely their decisions,” Joel said. “Either way, it’s not like they don’t think about it. It’s in the back of your mind all the time.”

For sure, she would make a wonderful doctor, a beautiful combination of intelligence and compassion derived from years of learning from her own case study.

Or does she stick with sports and stay in the arena that has assisted her so much? She’d make a splendid coach. Her passion for the game is only exceeded by her own willingness to demand the best from herself.

Whichever path she chooses, it should be the one that makes her the happiest. She certainly deserves that.

After all, they say to experience the pleasures of life, you have to experience some pain.

There’s no denying that Rachel Culp has had more than her fair share of that.