May 8, 2014
By Jerome Boettcher
When Sarah Tustin heard her name called at the Black and Gold Banquet last month as the Miss Commodore Award winner, she admits she was a bit surprised.
“Being sidelined, one of the hardest parts was not being considered an athlete anymore,” Tustin said. “The fact I was still nominated and won that, it meant the world to me. It was just refreshing to know people hadn’t forgotten about me.”
Forget? Tustin was hard to miss.
At 5-foot-11, she towered over her teammates as the tallest player on the lacrosse team. She often wore her distinct blond hair in a ponytail. And her contagious smile was always on display at practice and during games – even though her career ended before her senior season began.
Tustin, a three-time All-SEC Academic Honor Roll recipient, graduates on Friday with a degree in organization and communications. In August, she starts working as a human resources associate for the DISH Network in Denver.
Her collegiate lacrosse career might not have unfolded as she expected but the 22-year-old from Horsham, Pa., left her mark on the team.
“She is a great kid and a very good leader,” coach Cathy Swezey said. “Some kids don’t have to be on the field to lead. I think she does a good job of that.”
The Mr. and Miss Commodore Awards are voted on by the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and given to a “graduating senior student-athlete who best represents their team, the student-athlete body, and the campus community.”
Tustin definitely embodied the spirit of the award by bringing leadership to the sidelines despite never logging a minute this season. Starting her junior year of high school, Tustin was diagnosed with concussions five times.
Her last came a year ago in practice right before the American Lacrosse Conference Tournament. It was her second of the season and came just three weeks after she played in her second game of the season, against Ohio State on April 7, 2013. It would turn out to be the last game of her collegiate career.
“I came in junior year (at Vanderbilt) ready to go, ready to provide a role on the field,” she said. “Once I got injured in preseason it spiraled down from there.”
Still, Tustin left Vanderbilt last spring excited about her senior season.
She enjoyed a remarkable summer, which started in June when the lacrosse team took an eight-day foreign trip to Italy. In July, Tustin, teammates Maddie Kratz and Amanda Lockwood, along with 18 other Vanderbilt student-athletes ventured to Tanzania, Africa to deliver shoes to underprivileged areas in conjunction with Soles4Souls.
But something was off. Symptoms of something more serious still persisted – headaches, dizziness, failure to concentrate and anxiety.
“I had the most amazing summer in the world but I still felt these symptoms and kept trying to say, ‘You’re just thinking too hard about it,’” she said. “I went to go see my doctor at home and he said, ‘No, you’re still suffering from your concussions.’”
In the fall, she returned to Vanderbilt and met with the team physician, Dr. Andrew Gregory. He decided to keep Tustin out of fall ball. While her team practiced, she often went to the Vanderbilt University Medical Center for cognitive rehab.
“It started to become really difficult because I’m used to being a part of practice and runs every day. And I wasn’t doing those practices and runs,” she said. “Dealing with this concussion, trying to get over the symptoms, on top of being really sad about not being there and not being able to achieve the goal I wanted to coming into my senior year. Over the summer, I still prepared for it. I wanted to be a huge leader on the field. That obviously did not happen.”
Her parents were hesitant and concerned about her safety, but Tustin took the mindset out of Christmas break of “high risk, high reward.” She was determined to return to the field in the spring.
When she returned to campus, however, she met again with Gregory. He didn’t feel comfortable on clearing Tustin to play. He cited she wasn’t herself in the fall and was weary of the increased likelihood she could suffer another concussion.
A sport she had played for more than 10 years was suddenly over. It was hard news to fathom.
“It was the hardest in the beginning,” she said. “I just really struggled with the concussion on top of not feeling a part of the team. This semester has been a lot better. It has definitely been harder watching games, knowing you can’t do anything about what’s on the scoreboard. It was just an adjustment. It never got easier but it is just dealing with what life gives you. I kind of dealt with it.”
Said Swezey: “It has been hard but she handled it so well. Honestly, not many kids would have handled it that well.”
Tustin’s impact didn’t lessen.
The coaches told her they still wanted her to be a part of the team. She went to practice, film sessions and continued to make every road trip with the team. She worked with Callahan Kent before practices and games, firing off shots at the freshman goalkeeper. On the sidelines, she helped track statistics. She was still a presence, still a mentor to younger players.
Hesitant to call herself a coach, Tustin wanted to bring a positive voice.
“I’m a little bit in the grey area,” she said. “I feel like I’m the senior who doesn’t play and runs around and is there for the team, if anyone needs to talk. I’m like that positive voice in the back of everyone’s mind. It never got easier but I learned to cope with it in different ways,” she said. “I feel like my being sidelined helped other people with me just needing to focus on my teammates and what they needed to work on.”
Another concern of Tustin returning to the field was how a concussion could impact her life after college. If she suffered a concussion during the season, symptoms could persist for months, affecting her performance in the workplace.
Instead, the extra time afforded Tustin opportunities to attend career fairs and meet with employers. Months before graduation she had a job lined up.
“It gave me an opportunity to also focus on finding what I wanted to do after graduation,” said Tustin, a double minor in corporate strategy and engineering management. “In a weird way, you always say everything happens for a reason. But I don’t know if I would have gone to career fairs or anything because I would have been too tired from practice.”
Tustin’s collegiate lacrosse career consisted of just seven games, one goal – on her first career shot – and four assists.
Tustin will walk across the stage on Friday – along with fellow senior teammates Brandi Byner, Alyssa Dunlap, Chelsea Lanzoni and Abby Wheeler – and receive her diploma. And she’ll remember how she made the most of her career and senior season, and not regret a thing.
“You are with the team every single day, with your best friends and you’re working for a common goal,” she said. “We’ll never be able to play lacrosse at this level again. Vanderbilt has been the most ideal dream school. That was my goal in high school and once I achieved that it was everything I wanted and more.”