Page 36 - CHSCA Fall-Winter Magazine 2020-2021
P. 36

Longtime Connecticut Field Hockey Coach Staying Positive in Fight Against ALS
 by Lori Riley
reprinted with permission from The Hartford Courant
The field hockey players stood in a row, wearing masks, waiting, at Foote Park last Sunday. It was cold. They were holding a brown pa- per banner reading “Miles for Mc- Guirk,” which rustled in the wind coming off Long Island Sound.
Only a few of them had played for Cathy McGuirk, who had re- tired two years ago after 41 years of coaching field hockey at Bran- ford High with 558 victories and 10 state titles.
But they were there, along with some former players, because of tradition, because of the legacy Cathy and her husband John, who served as her assistant for many years, built at Branford High.
The McGuirks drove into the park. John helped Cathy get out and into a wheelchair, bundled her up with a coat and wheeled her over. Everybody had walked loops around the park, three miles, to raise money for ALS research and a scholarship in Cathy’s name. As of last Sunday, Miles for McGuirk had raised $11,000.
“That was just amazing,” Cathy said. “When we came into the park, I saw the kids with the sign. I was crying. I was just overwhelmed.”
Cathy McGuirk is rarely over- whelmed, certainly neither on a playing field nor in life. She’s prac- tical, pragmatic and unrelentingly positive. When her Branford field hockey team would lose a game in the state tournament, ending their season, she was always upbeat.
There was always next season. When she was diagnosed with ALS in June, she had known some- thing was wrong for a while be- cause she was having a hard time
“[The doctor] said, ‘I can’t tell
you for sure but it might be ALS. I’m going to test you some more,’” she said. “I didn’t accept that at that point. Who wants to have ALS?
“Then COVID started and I didn’t get to go back and see him until June. He did more extensive tests. He said, ‘Well, the results I’m seeing right now is you have ALS.’ I said, ‘Oh, I don’t think that’s good, is it?’”
McGuirk, 75, retired from teaching physical education at Branford High in 1999. She played tennis and golf and pickleball and walked everywhere and swam and gardened and played a mean game of ping pong in the basement of her Branford home with John and their friends.
That an incurable disease has put this active, vibrant woman in a wheelchair, just two years after she retired from coaching, is heart- breaking.
“She’s got a wonderful outlook,” said Guilford coach Kitty Palmer, who has known Cathy for 38 years. “I give her so much credit for being so positive, trying to live her life ev- ery day as much as she can. She’s battling through it.
“She was always a true sports- man. Her kids love her, she had a winning program, she did every- thing right. It’s what we all aspired to be, to have programs like hers.”
Nicole Sturgess of Branford
came to Foote Park Sunday to walk with her teammate Stephanie Smelser. They were co-captains who graduated in 1993. Sturgess was a goalkeeper who helped Bran- ford win state titles from 1989-91, losing in the semifinals her senior year.
McGuirk’s diagnosis hit her hard. Her husband Paul died of ALS in 2012.
“He was a Hall of Fame athlete in this town,” she said. “It took him so quickly. It just brings back a lot of intense memories... and to know that it’s slowing her down already, my heart goes out to her, and John as the caregiver.”
Smelser said the McGuirks changed her life.
“They were like parents to us,” she said. “When you think of your four years in high school, you’re an independent, semi-grown adult, but you still really need that men- tor, that person who’s going to give you direction and empower you to believe in yourself when maybe other people aren’t.
“I’m a single mom with three kids, just going after jobs – [they’d say] ‘If you want the ball, you have to get it.’ ‘If you want the job, you have to get it. That job’s not com- ing to you, Stephanie.’ I would hear them in my head.”
Hillary Mendilla of Branford, who graduated in 1998, was there, wearing her high school field hock- ey kilt.
“Mr. and Mrs. McGuirk were some of the most influential people in my life,” she said. “I’m back into sort of the best shape of my life and I attribute that to the founda-
 PAGE 36 • CONNECTICUT COACH • ISSUE 1 – 2020-2021

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