Heather Ford found out the morning after. A text message from her old soccer coach asking if she had heard the terrible news told Ford something was wrong.
Erica Denhoff found out the morning after too. She was on a trip in Utah when she looked at her phone and saw the email announcing the news that College freshman and Penn track and field runner Madison Holleran had committed suicide on Jan. 17.
Ford knew Holleran since both were 13, having played in a summer soccer league with her growing up. Denhoff, a 2008 College graduate and Penn track & field alumna, never met her. But each has stepped up to honor her memory with suicide prevention fundraising in her name.
In fact, more than $56,000 has been raised for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention through three separate fundraisers in Holleran’s memory. Each acknowledges that suicide prevention awareness has to increase, particularly in a collegiate landscape so physically and mentally draining for young people who push themselves as hard as Holleran did.
Denhoff is just one of 183 donors contributing to a total of $11,293 raised to date made to an AFSP donation campaign sponsored by Penn track and field alumni. The campaign was launched five days after Holleran’s death by Penn Track and Field Alumni Board President Kate O’Hern Lyons and member Dana McCurdy Hibbard.
“It just seemed like the appropriate thing to do,” Hibbard, a 2006 graduate, said. “It was less about the money and more about honoring the wishes of Madison’s family.”
Holleran’s father Jim had requested that in lieu of flowers, donations may be made to AFSP. Lyons, a 1986 graduate, said that was the least the alumni could do, also noting that several of the alumni donors had dealt with suicide in their lives as well.
“It’s a really high-pressure situation, and I feel it can happen to anybody,” Lisa Barnett, a 2011 Penn track and field alumna, said of Holleran’s situation as a Penn freshman participating in cross country and track and field. “So it just seemed like a great way to contribute, and it’s something the Penn track alumni were doing as a team.”
Lyons also called Steve Dolan, Penn’s director of track and field and cross country, the morning after Holleran’s death to let him know that alumni of the program were there to support his team however it could.
“I can’t say enough good things about how Steve Dolan and his coaches have handled this situation,” Lyons said.
Dolan allowed athletes to individually decide whether to compete in Lehigh’s Angry Birds Invitational on Jan. 18 following Holleran’s death the night before. But Lyons says the next step is to institute a formal mentoring program pairing track and field alumni with the program’s current athletes, an idea that Lyons claimed was underway before Holleran’s suicide.
“We are still fine-tuning it,” Lyons said.
Denhoff remembers a similar alumni mentoring program from her time with the program.
“Back when I was a senior or junior, even before that, we had house parties where the alums would come and you could see them like a real person,” Denhoff said.
“We had people with eating disorders, people with major clinical depression, and it was a great thing for people on the team.”
Denhoff became “friends for life” with her mentee and 2009 graduate Carol Xu, running in the Boston Marathon with her last year.
“[Carol and I] talked on the phone the other night about, wow, how could this have happened?” Denhoff said. “There were people on [our] team that we knew had issues. And it was our worst fear that someone would have intentionally hurt themselves, but we never imagined that it would have gone this far.”
“Teammates have each other and the alumni are just an extension of that team,” Barnett said. “I don’t know that anything formal needs to happen. We try to come together and make sure everyone’s okay, and we will continue to do that.”
Vinny Guaglardi, a 15-year-old high school student from Wyckoff, N.J., never met Holleran either. But they shared a few mutual friends, and those friends’ stories about her inspired him to set up another fundraising drive benefiting AFSP. It didn’t take long for the drive to exceed its goal of $5,000, so Guaglardi raised the goal to $10,000. The fundraiser has raised $15,041 to date.
“I couldn’t believe it caught on like it did,” Guaglardi said. “But it felt like the right thing to do to help preserve her memory.”
Guaglardi hopes to convince the Borough Council of Allendale, Holleran’s hometown, to approve a memorial run in her honor, which he plans to hold around Memorial Day.
Talking about Holleran with his mother Cheryl Anderson and other family members around their dinner table was enough to spur Guaglardi into action. But the memory of Holleran through her friends and images of her life on his television were all it took to deeply affect him.
It has never taken much. When Penn football running back Kyle Ambrogi committed suicide in October 2005, the profound effect of his death on the track and field team was largely a matter of proximity, as its members would run the track around the football field inside Franklin Field. As a result, the programs, which Denhoff remembers sharing the locker room underneath Franklin Field, have always been close.
“We would party with [the football players], practice with them,” Denhoff said. “I remember an article in the DP saying football practice was canceled, and yet the women’s track team was still running around the field. We were like, ‘Oh gosh, this is horrible.’”
“They’re equally horrible,” Barnett said of the suicides of Holleran and Owen Thomas, a Penn football captain who committed suicide in April 2010. “The impact of [Thomas’s death] was incredibly, incredibly upsetting.”
Three suicides within Penn Athletics alone in the last eight years have profoundly devastated even peers who perhaps only tangentially knew the victims through shared playing surfaces, classes or friends. That’s all it takes to experience much of the same fog that Heather Ford remembers feeling for a week after learning of Holleran’s death.
RUNNING FOR MADISON
Like the Penn Track and Field Alumni Board and Guaglardi, Ford created a fundraiser benefiting the AFSP in Holleran’s memory. Ford’s campaign started when she decided to dedicate her run in the New York City Half Marathon in March to Holleran, and it has raised $30,000 so far.
“She was truly a beautiful person, inside and out,” Ford said.
Ford last saw Holleran in September, when she visited her on Penn’s campus.
“She seemed the same as she had always been,” Ford said. “She seemed happy, well-adjusted and well-liked by her peers.”
Ford said Holleran posted on her Facebook wall a day before she died, telling Ford that she missed her and that she should come visit her at Penn soon.
“She was always smiling, always laughing, always there to brighten someone’s day,” Ford said. “That was something I admired about her.”
Holleran’s story displayed that no one is immune to issues of mental health.
“If it can happen to her, it can happen to anybody,” Ford said.
What remains now for those still grieving Holleran’s loss are the memorial fundraisers continuing to support the awareness-raising works of AFSP and the memory of a person who they feel had everything to live for.
“I think it’s important for people to be aware of the fact that depression does not discriminate,” Ford said. “You are never alone.”