Cedar Crest’s ‘Super Mom’
returns – 15 years later
In 1993, Heather Atkinson Gallagher was flying high. She was one of the nation’s top forwards at Penn State, then nationally ranked as the No. 1 NCAA Division I field hockey team, and she had realized her goal of playing championship-quality hockey.
But shortly after wrapping up an exciting year in the national spotlight – and proving she truly was one of the team’s standout players – Gallagher quit and stepped off the field for good. She left Penn State early, got married and started a family.
But that’s only half of the story.
Now, 15 years later, soccer mom Gallagher is using the year of eligibility she had remaining from her Penn State years to get back on the hockey field – not as a seasoned coach, but as a player on Cedar Crest’s field hockey team. Today, she is running alongside women nearly half her age – not only helping a fledgling but promising Division III team earn respect within its division but also gain valuable lessons about the sport and about life.
“The heart of a competitor never dies,” says Gallagher, now 35 years old and a senior nursing major at Cedar Crest. “I am learning true passion for the game from my teammates and our coach, Marci Lippert. These women really love the game and it shows. Together, they are so dedicated to making the Cedar Crest program grow and improve. I am very grateful to have this opportunity and that Marci and my teammates have accepted me.
“It is so exciting to be out there again. I feel like a bear after hibernating, or like someone riding a bike after so many years. It all comes back, although maybe a little slower than I would like.
“We’re a team,” she continues. “It’s not all about me. We learn together and try to function as a unit. We need each other to be successful. On the other hand I have learned that I have something to offer. And I am finding that my new teammates can learn from me in areas on and off the field. I have life knowledge and experience as well as field hockey knowledge and experience to offer.”
As an adult student, Gallagher’s life experience is deep. Now the mother of two sons, 11 and 14, and a full-time student working to finish her nursing degree, she played three seasons for Penn State and helped the Nitttany Lions advance to the NCAA semifinals in 1991 and 1993.
Gallagher stayed home with her sons for five years but kept involved with local field hockey by officiating and sometimes coaching at area high schools. When she returned to the career world, she noticed good job opportunities in nursing and decided to enroll at Cedar Crest to finish her bachelor’s degree.
It wasn’t long before Gallagher’s husband piqued her interest in playing field hockey again when he mentioned that she probably had a year of athletics eligibility left.
Luckily for Gallagher, Diane Moyer, one of her former coaches and mentors, worked as a professor in the college’s psychology department, and she approached Moyer with her husband’s idea.
An Olympian with a silver medal from the 1984 Los Angeles games, Moyer is an accomplished hockey player in her own right. She thought the idea had merit and put Gallagher in contact with Lippert, Cedar Crest’s field hockey coach.
“Heather was, and is, an elite athlete and she played at a very high level,” Moyer said. “When you have that kind of experience, you find you learned a lot of skills – how to think on the field, how to cope, how to prepare mentally as well as physically. When she told me she was thinking of returning to the field for her final year of eligibility, I encouraged her. I knew she was up for the challenge.”
Lippert and Gallagher met with the school’s athletics director, and worked out eligibility issues with the NCAA, which granted her a year to finish her playing career. What seemed a distant dream was suddenly a reality.
And has the game changed in 15 years?
“Well, some of my thoughts and strategies have changed over the years as the game has progressed,” Gallagher said. “Today’s player is not what it was 15 years ago. To be honest, some days I feel 35, other days I feel like I’m 20 again and really feel the fight inside to improve my game.”
“Her body may not be able to do as much as when she was young,” Moyer said, “but mentally she is very strong. In order to be a good athlete you need to be a smart one. She has potential to share her wealth with the players we have. Heather knows what she can do and what can’t do. She knows the game and as a result, the other players are really learning from her.”
“The students like how she coaches quietly on the side. She is not like me as a coach; instead, she is a quiet leader. She encourages them to work on their skills and makes suggestions. They really respect her experience,” says Lippert, who notes that Gallagher is playing the cherry-picker spot on the team and is an offensive threat, getting a lot of shots on goal.
“Her stick skills are unbelievable,” Lippert said. “The game reps are asking about her – they immediately ask about her age, because her skills are so advanced. But she doesn’t look too much older than the girls, so they are a little scared to ask.”
Lippert says Gallagher brings a sense of spirit to the team that elevates their game – even when the losses are tough.
“I notice her most when things look down. She is such a team player, that’s when you see how much she is really taking care of them. She is able to relay to the team the things they need to hear when we lose. She is also helping me as a coach. I think having her on the team has pushed me three years ahead in my development as a head coach. It is such a neat experience. I think every new coach starting out should have a player like this.”
Gallagher’s teammates have received her with open arms, nicknaming her “Super Mom” and voting her one of the team captains, which really touched the veteran. Gallagher says that she feels lucky to be among them.
“I will say that just being a part of this team has made me feel like more of Cedar Crest student and not just a nursing student going back for her degree. I have developed a real sense of pride for the college. But, this is it for me … no more second chances or third chances. I push myself as far as I can go and some days it is hard. I have to put things into perspective and appreciate this chance and opportunity; I am here to live out my dream. I admit my body may be hurting, but I also admit that I love this. I have definitely gotten back my competitive spirit again and it feels good.”
Michael Traupman is executive director of college relations at Cedar Crest.
© 2010 The National Collegiate Athletic Association