Earning a spot as high school valedictorian, being an elite volleyball player with a full-ride scholarship at an NCAA Division-1 school, and coming from a strong Catholic family and faith background—Colleen’s life seemed to be a series of open doors heading into college.
Things changed soon after she arrived at the University of Delaware (UD) for preseason practice. One of her older teammates was quick to pull her aside to explain a few lessons. Calling the volleyball coaches by their first names, as Colleen had been doing, had to stop. And words like “sore,” “tired,” and “busy” were off the table too. Everybody was.
Not much later, Colleen had another impromptu one-on-one, this time with one of the coaches. She was warned she needed to change her attitude because the head coach was starting to regret recruiting her.
From that point on, Colleen’s top goal was trying to please her head coach, on and off the court. “My coach became my god,” she said. “Performance was the currency with which to win her favor. But I was never good enough.”
Over the grueling weeks and months that followed, Colleen began bonding with her teammates—through partying and complaining. “While I did love my teammates, there was this incredibly toxic culture on my team,” she said. “I didn’t even realize it, but I was sinking in that environment.
“Honestly, I came in [to UD] with a lot of pride. There was also a level of personal brokenness that I was coming to grips with,” Colleen admitted. “This was the reason why I couldn’t navigate the brokenness of the culture around me.”
In Search of a Different Door
By the end of fall semester, it felt like Colleen’s “open door” at UD had pretty much slammed shut. She started counting down the semesters till she could be done with volleyball—the sport she used to love. Her parents barely managed to talk her out of transferring before her freshman spring semester.
That’s when Colleen came across Delaware Christian Athletes, an InterVarsity chapter that served as a forerunner for today’s Athletes InterVarsity. “For the first time, I was with other athletes who were struggling with the same things that I was,” she said. “But these athletes weren’t turning to substances and sex and gossip and complaining to numb their pain. They turned to Jesus and were seeking him in his Word for answers.”
Colleen’s head knowledge about Jesus—accumulated throughout her years growing up in church—started to penetrate her heart. “All of a sudden, who I was and my identity were not connected to my performance anymore. I was valuable and worthy because God created me and Jesus loved me and died on the cross for me,” she said. “My identity was no longer in what my coaches said about me.”
The moment she first realized that, it felt like a weight fell off Colleen’s shoulders, sparking a dramatic transformation.
Instead of praying about her coaches, one friend challenged Colleen to pray for her coaches. “God started to melt my heart for them,” she said. “I realized the immense amount of pressure they were under, and that they didn’t have a faith like mine. If we didn’t perform on the court, they could lose their job. It was such a hard way to live.”
The Lord also deepened Colleen’s love and concern for her team. She refused to be part of the toxic complaining and instead started hosting a team Bible study. When her teammates needed a ride home after a night of partying, she offered to pick them up. It gave her the chance to have some surprisingly deep discussions and see how her teammates really were doing.
“The whole culture of my team started to change,” Colleen said. “The Bible study that started when I was there continued for the next 10 years. Every freshman that came in to play Delaware volleyball came into a different culture. And that was Jesus.”
The Only Open Door
With graduation rapidly approaching, Colleen started weighing her options. Having just completed a prestigious internship at the Federal Reserve in Cleveland, she was poised for a bright future using her economics degree. She also was seriously considering going overseas to play volleyball professionally.
But during her junior year, while attending InterVarsity’s Urbana Student Missions Conference, she sensed a different calling. Later, her campus minister at UD echoed this by asking her to join the ministry there. “God clearly shut every door and was leaving the possibility of InterVarsity staff open,” Colleen said.
Her decision to join staff ultimately stemmed from her own transformative experience with InterVarsity. “I want athletes to have that same community that I had,” she said. “A community where athletes can see Scripture lived out, where they see it not only in what they read but lived out in the lives of other athletes around them—that’s what makes it so attractive.”
At the next Urbana, Colleen met Maghan Perez and Ben Sturgill, fellow campus ministers with a passion for athletes ministry. Together they began working to develop a specific ministry within InterVarsity—what has become Athletes InterVarsity—designed to address the specific opportunities and challenges athletes face.
For athletes who are interested in starting a Bible study or community like the one that changed Colleen’s life, she encourages asking God to bring others alongside you to share in this vision. Then “spend time in the Word together and pray that God would start to build the community you seek,” she said.
And for those ministering to athletes, Colleen recommends, “Love them no matter what and care for them no matter what.” This kind of love—the kind Colleen experienced herself—has the power to open all kinds of doors into the kingdom of God.