As a hesitant 11-year-old, Meghan Gaines was bullied and belittled so much at a summer sports camp that her parents pulled her out of it.
She didn’t like sports much after that, so she only reluctantly agreed when one day she was asked to fill out a club volleyball team.
After the match, in which she may or may not have acquitted herself well, coach Janice Ninemire approached her and said, “You have potential.”
Those words, Gaines said Tuesday, “gave me everything I have in life: friends, self-esteem, drive and confidence. And it’s all because of her.”
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As it turns out, Janice Ninemire Van Gorp, who died last week at 46 after suffering a brain aneurysm, wasn’t so selective about invoking that term or similar sentiments.
“She told everybody that,” Gaines, 30, who played for Shawnee Mission North’s 2002 state championship team, said with a laugh.
But that didn’t diminish the meaning of those words in the life of Van Gorp, who is survived by her husband, Mark, and young children Rachel and Andrew.
It enhanced it.
Because she always meant it — as defining a trait as there might have been in a woman whose life made ripples that only will continue extending.
You might know that from about any one of the hundreds of people at her funeral last week at the Colonial Presbyterian Church — mourners who included Deanna Martin, a former Shawnee Mission North star who played volleyball at Virginia and flew in from Maine for the service.
It feels like such a darkness having lost “such an incredible member of the world,” Martin said Tuesday.
But Van Gorp’s spirit will forever live in her, Martin recently told her 5-year-old daughter, “and it’s in you, too.”
Multiply that dynamic by the countless people she touched as a coach, English teacher, volunteer, tutor and mentor who most wanted to be known for her Christian beliefs.
If you’ve been lucky in life, maybe you’ve been in the sphere of influence of someone like Van Gorp, who played volleyball at Iowa State and ran track at Iowa State.
Someone who believed in you before you did.
Martin, then Deanna Zwarich, tells a tale similar to Gaines’, one that no doubt is echoed by many, including her sister Maralene, who had played with Gaines.
Martin was playing basketball and soccer when she had Van Gorp as a ninth-grade English teacher who planted the suggestion that she had the makings of a volleyball player.
Never mind that she had never touched a volleyball and wasn’t particularly interested in the game.
Two years later, Martin caved to the force of nature — a woman that Gaines’ mother, Cheryl, said must have had the energy of 100.
Playing for Van Gorp changed the course of Martin’s life, in which she has sought to emulate the woman she saw as a kindred soul by becoming a coach and English teacher herself.
“It was like falling into a rushing river,” she said, managing a laugh through her tears. “The only thing you could do was just rush with it.”
What else would I have done, she wonders now.
“She just blew that wind into my sails, and I just have been driven by that my entire life,” she said. “Every time I achieved something, I surprised myself a little bit. And she was never surprised.
“She was always proud and joyful, and she would just smile. But she was never surprised.”
The profound and sudden loss left a void at Heritage Christian Academy, where Van Gorp had most recently been teaching and coaching.
In a conference room there on Tuesday, principal Rick Jarvis and athletic director Tammie Holt spoke of the passion Van Gorp infused in every aspect of her job: whether it was honoring their religious faith or teaching English or coaching.
Jarvis said he could count on one hand the number of teachers he’s worked with over 20 years who brought that level of quality and dedication to the job.
Kind as she was, they both noted, there was no “fluff” in Van Gorp, as Jarvis put it.
She also received.
“More than once, she had tears in her eyes telling me how much she really loved her players,” Holt said.
With a smile, Holt thought of how often she raised her hands in triumph and said “woo-hoo,” even over the little things. And she told of one of the last e-mails she’d received from her.
“‘I think we have a chance to go to state this year’ … She even gave me the address of where she wanted to stay (in Emporia),” she said. “That was her. I shared that with her team. I still have that e-mail, and I’ll probably keep it a long time.”
Van Gorp will be emblazoned in the memories and present in the actions of her proteges forever, too.
For a broader view of that, just go to her Legacy.com page and read the outpouring.
When Martin and Gaines consider all that Van Gorp has meant to her, they think about all the little things:
How she’d meet with anyone for any time it took to set them straight in times of trouble, or how she helped everyone on a team find their role even if they weren’t a star.
“She was everything to all of us,” Gaines said.
Gaines remembers the cards she would give “every single player before every game for every team she had,” with messages of inspiration and typically illustrated with stick figures depicting them in action.
“Be a wall,” one might say, showing a player towering over the net and an opponent on the other side running away screaming, “Mommy.”
But mostly they think about the biggest thing of all: believing in yourself because someone believed in you.
When she was playing for Van Gorp, Gaines detested running. “ ‘I’m not made for this; I’m not a runner,’” she’d tell her coach.
Van Gorp told her this was a mental wall, and to get over it.
Such urging ultimately coaxed Gaines to run the 8-minute miles that Van Gorp required every day after practice.
Now Gaines runs 6 miles a day. When she met her goal of running a 10K race by the time she was 30, she posted it on Facebook.
Still looking over her shoulder years later, Van Gorp left her in tears when she commented she’d never doubted her and said that kind of drive was what made her the player she was then ... and the woman she is now.
The day Van Gorp died, Gaines burst into tears as she was sprinting up a hill on the Indian Creek bike trail.
“I pictured her at the top, yelling at me, telling me to keep going,” she said.
On the day of her funeral, Gaines took a flower off the casket.
Then she went home and changed into her running gear and went to the Shawnee Mission North track.
As she ran mile after mile after mile, she thought of what Van Gorp always said.
“When you want to quit, don’t focus on the hills and miles ahead. Focus on the finish line.”
This run, though, seemed different than the one days before.
“It felt,” she said, “like she was standing there with me at the finish line.”
Then Gaines lay the flower right there, where Van Gorp always stood cheering her on, and took a picture of it as the sun beamed through the clouds.