The most accomplished coach in program history, Penn volleyball's Kerry Carr is nearing 500 games on the sidelines for the Red and Blue. Her greatest battle, however, took place away from the gym. Every year, Carr does what she can to continue that fight.
Every season, Penn volleyball designates one home weekend in October as its "Dig Pink Weekend," in which the team uses its two games as a platform to promote breast cancer awareness. Dig Pink is a creation of the Side-Out foundation, which since 2004 has used the game of volleyball to help fight the deadly disease.
Carr now carries the deepest of personal connections to the Dig Pink program and the life-saving cause it promotes. But that wasn't always the case. As it happened, Penn's participation in the program may have saved Carr's life before she knew she had cause to engage with Dig Pink on such a personal level.
"It was something that we'd wanted to do for awhile," Carr recalled of the Quakers' joining the Dig Pink program. "In 2008 we finally got it together to plan a date and everything. That actually reminded me that I needed to go for my mammogram... and I found out I had breast cancer."
For Carr, a lifetime devotee of the sport who was just a few years removed at the time from having led Penn to three straight Ivy League titles and was closing in on the program's all-time wins record, reality didn't set in right away.
"When I'm in season, [coaching] is all I can think about. So when the doctor told me [I had cancer], I was like, 'OK, I can have the surgery December 1st after the season is over.' And he was like, 'No.' It just never occurred to me that it was something urgent, because with breast cancer you don't feel sick, you don't feel anything wrong. You feel perfectly fine."
But the doctors emphasized to Carr that the surgery could not wait, and the coach relented.
"It was a very aggressive form of cancer... Having two kids at that point that were really young, I just made sure I put family first and took care of myself."
Carr had surgery on Oct. 8, 2008, effectively missing that entire season. Ryan Goodwin, one of Carr's assistants at the time, took over as head coach, leading Penn to a 9-5 Ivy record after a slow start. Carr was able to make it back to the Palestra to watch the final contest of the season. The rest of the games, Carr watched on TV and online, but not as the average sports spectator at home might. Carr freely admitted to keeping a tight watch on Goodwin, for whom she had great praise, and her other assistants while absent from the sidelines.
"Oh, totally," Carr laughed. "Like, 'Why did you do this substitution? Why didn't you call this timeout?' And they were like, 'Kerry, the game's over.' And I was like, 'No, I need to talk about it, what's going on?' You don't ever separate yourself when you're that immersed in the team, you don't step back and say 'I don't care.' You care, but you're frustrated that you can't be there to do things, so it's hard."
For Carr, one of the hardest things was leaving behind her players, whom she so often refers to affectionately as "the girls." But the team, while stunned by the news, was incredibly supportive of the coach's decision.
"It was definitely tough, it was really sad to hear what she was going to have to go through," said Elizabeth Semmens, a junior on the 2008 team. "But we were really supportive of her. We knew that her missing the season was what she needed to do to take care of herself, and we were really supportive of that."
Semmens reflected that Carr's absence, and the desire to win for their coach, added another layer of motivation for the team. But Carr didn't stay on (or off) the sidelines for long. Months after her surgery, Carr was back to work, leading the team's recruiting efforts and springtime preparation for the team's upcoming season
And in the fall of 2009, Carr made her comeback in style, leading the way to a career-high 23 wins, a 13-1 Ivy record and her fourth Ivy title.
"It was great," said Semmens, who that season set a Penn record with 421 kills en route to winning Ivy League Player of the Year. "I think that was such an important victory for [Carr], not just professionally but personally, that she was able to come back from her surgery, and fighting breast cancer... it was a pretty amazing season for many reasons."
Back on top, Carr stayed there in 2010, leading the Red and Blue to a second straight championship and the fifth of her career. Meanwhile, Penn's involvement in "Dig Pink" continued to evolve. Dani Shepherd, a freshman on the 2010 championship team who would go on to become one of the best liberos in program history, recalled intra-team fundraising competitions, Locust Walk bake sales, and reaching out to family and friends as being among the methods the team used to generate support and raise awareness, in addition to the traditional wearing of pink uniforms in the team's first game of each Dig Pink weekend.
"The teams were very involved and very close to the cause, given that Kerry had that experience of having had breast cancer and being a survivor," Shepherd said. "It was a major priority for her, and for our team we would plan up to this Dig Pink match weeks in advance and figure out how we could raise the most money."
This past weekend, the Quakers participated in Dig Pink Weekend for the ninth time while hosting Yale and Brown. The team wore pink uniforms on Friday and, on Saturday, sported pink bandanas to help support Carr's dragon boat team, a group of survivors, ranging from 30 to 70 in age who row together to show that life after cancer can be as fulfilling — indeed, even more fulfilling — than life before it. Before Saturday night's game, the players, coaches and fans also held up signs with "I Dig Pink for:" and the name of a person close to them who has battled or is battling the disease.
"The number of people that we put down on signs was just immense, and I think that helps everyone to stop and think, 'this could be me,'" Carr said. "I think it was a powerful statement to have all those names in the gym Saturday night."
Three of Carr's current players, sophomores Brooke Behrbaum and Brigit McDermott and junior Hayley Molnar, took the lead in promoting the Dig Pink activities, decorating the Palestra pink in preparation for the game and putting together a promotional video. The entire team, dressed in pink warmup shirts, was present at the Fan Fest event on Shoemaker Green before the Penn football game and made an appearance at the game, throwing "Dig Pink" volleyballs into the crowd.
"It's mostly out of respect for [Carr] as a person and a survivor," McDermott said. "But I think all of us have someone close to us... I have an aunt who battled breast cancer, and everybody has somebody that they know, so if you think about it everybody's affected by that disease. And it's such a small--- like, I can donate two hours of my time and make a difference, and make Coach understand that we do care about her and her experience beating this disease."
"It's very personal for her and for us to support her 100% is important," added Molnar, whose grandmother is a survivor.
Eighteen years after arriving at Penn and eight years after her diagnosis, Carr is going strong, with a very young Penn team exceeding expectations in the coach's 19th season. Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan, a star on Carr's first three championship teams, discussed how Carr's long Penn tenure speaks not just to her abilities, but her character as well:
"She's obviously not just hopping around, looking to springboard off of Penn into a bigger school," said Kwak-Hefferan, who graduated in 2004. "She's a huge part of the program, and she's really, really invested in its success over the long term. I think it's great to have one coach shepherding for so long, it makes the team stronger."
Carr's battle with the disease has left her stronger and more able to keep her career in perspective.
"It was about coming to a realization that you have to have a balance," Carr said. "When you're in season you can't just be so immersed in it that all you're thinking about is the next game or practice. It was a good wake-up call all the way around for balance in life."
But while Carr has her priorities in order, her true passion is not in doubt:
"[The treatment] also made me realize how much I love coaching. You take a step back and realize what you miss, after you've been [coaching] for a number of years. It really makes your super grateful to return to health, and then to the job I love."