Feb. 9, 2010
By Brittany McCall
“Never be sorry.” Her father’s words raced through Regina Oliver’s mind as she stepped onto the field. Surrounded by a sea of red, white and blue, she looked to the 17 other women standing by her side and closed her eyes to take it all in. She could feel the warm sunshine splash across her face and the earth quiver beneath her cleats as her teammates aligned to take their place in history. It was a magical moment that few are fortunate to ever experience – the moment when a dream transforms into reality.
A former women’s lacrosse standout at Ohio State, Oliver was selected to the 2009 Federation of International Lacrosse World Cup Team, which had been tasked with restoring gold to America after enduring a four-year Australian reign. In June 2009, Oliver aided Team USA to its sixth World Cup title on the strength of an 8-7 victory over Australia in the gold medal game.
With fervent anticipation, Oliver eagerly awaited alongside her teammates to accept the coveted hardware. But before she could feel the precious weight of the gold medal around her neck, she had one last act of humility to perform. She had to bow her head.
It was a humbling truth Oliver learned at a very young age.
A native of Pottstown, Pa., Oliver grew up knowing one thing: there is no substitution for hard work. Born into a sports-driven family, she was challenged every day by her three older brothers, not to mention a blue-collar community scarred by poverty and violence. But for every bit of strife, Oliver’s upbringing was rooted in love and encouragement.
“I am extremely lucky to be from a poverty-stricken community,” Oliver said. “Pottstown gave me my background into a life where I was not given a lot. It was a rough upbringing, but it got me to where I am today.”
At age 12, Oliver lost her father to AIDS. Life as she knew it had changed forever. To cope with the devastation, she channeled her feelings to the hardwood and turned to her basketball coaches and teammates for support.
“It was a big blow,” Oliver reflected. “At the time, I didn’t want to get heavily involved in sports, but athletics soon became my outlet. It was my release. I began to view every practice and every game as a way out of Pottstown and a way to make my dad proud.”
Reinforced by the pillars of family, friends and mentors, Oliver gradually shifted her passion from hoops to lacrosse. Her speed caught the attention of Pottstown High School head coach Andrew Bachman, who encouraged Oliver to partake in local tournaments and clinics. It was at one such clinic at Boyertown University when Oliver first encountered Ohio State head coach Sue Stimmel.
A 14-year-old-hopeful, Oliver recalls in admiration as the Ohio State lacrosse team piled out of its Scarlet and Gray bus. It was love at first sight, and in that moment she felt destined to be a Buckeye. However, years later when it came time for her recruitment, Oliver had to look no further than two core values when making her decision: family and an outlet from the life she knew. Ohio State promised both.
“When I arrived on campus, I felt a sense of family,” Oliver said. “It was important to find a program that put my interests first as a person rather than just a student-athlete. Ohio State has such a rich tradition that you cannot help but feeling part of something greater than yourself.”
Upon arriving in Columbus, that sense of family was immediately put to the test when Oliver learned her chief recruiting liaison, Dennis Short, had left and been replaced with new assistant coach Mike Scerbo.
“No!” Oliver screamed when recalling her immediate reaction. Through affectionate laughter she added, “I didn’t want him to be my coach at first. I wanted Coach Short, who had recruited me.”
No stranger to change, opposition soon gave way to a desire for growth. Oliver quickly transformed from a scrappy speedster to a refined apprentice of the game, bolstered by the knowledge and passion that radiated from her coaching staff. Today she credits many of her accomplishments to her mentors at OSU and lists Scerbo among her family as one of her key influentials. Espousing the notion that everything in life happens for a reason, Oliver went on to serve under Scerbo at Duquesne where she is currently in her third campaign as the Dukes’ defensive coordinator.
In her first season with the Scarlet and Gray, Oliver earned American Lacrosse Conference Rookie of the Year accolades after aiding OSU to its first-ever NCAA Championship appearance in 2002. With high expectations on the line, the tenacious defender returned as a seasoned sophomore to pilot the Buckeyes to a program-record 14 wins in 2003 as OSU captured its second-straight NCAA berth and the ALC championship crown. For her efforts, Oliver was recognized as ALC Player of the Year. The four-year letterwinner finished four-time first-team ALC All-Conference selection and garnered All-America honors three times (2003, 2004 and 2005).
During her senior campaign, Oliver vied for a position on the 2005 U.S. World Cup team and was cut. Afflicted with doubt, she contemplated abandoning the national stage forever. It was at that juncture when Tina Sloan Green came to her aid. An African-American pioneer in a predominantly white sport, Sloan Green reminded Oliver of the larger picture at stake.
Although Oliver admits she never felt responsible for diversifying women’s lacrosse at the national level, she recognized an opportunity to justly serve her two principal passions – sports and children.
“The first thing that came to mind was my nieces,” she stated. “I wanted young girls to see me in a USA jersey and know that it is possible.”
Immersed in thoughts of youth, Oliver’s reflections turned to her beloved childhood hero. She could not help but wonder what her father would think if she gave up on her dream.
“My father always told me to never be sorry,” she said. “It was one of the last things he said to me before he passed. I have tried to live by those words and it’s something I would remind myself before every competition. Never be sorry. When I am done with this game, I cannot take it back.”
It was that same conviction that inspired Oliver to try again. In early February, she was asked to join a team of 18 young women in representing the United States at the 2009 World Cup in Prague, Czech Republic. The self-proclaimed X Factor provided a spark to the defensive unit and aided the Red, White and Blue in stymieing arguably one of the best players to ever take the field in Australia’s Jen Adams.
“She was a beast who could eat attackers alive,” fellow USA teammate Caroline Cryer said of Oliver. “A relentless, shut-down defender, Gina never took a play off and always challenged her teammates to be better.”
Tied 3-3 at halftime, Team USA unleashed five unanswered goals in the second stanza before staving off a late Australian rally. Fueled by a selfless mentality and waves of depth, the U.S. National team united for an unstoppable combination; and the results were golden.
“It was a solid team,” Oliver said. “We may not have had the most skilled players ever to take the field, but we did have the best team in the world.”
As the national anthem echoed through the arena to signal the American victory, so too did Oliver’s thoughts resonate with memories from her past. The fabric of her journey had been woven in strands of industry, strife, and above all, perseverance. And then without warning, she began to cry.
Life is a beautiful gift, but unlike competition where there are winners and losers, no player makes it out alive. Oliver is not only an ambassador of sport and her country, but more importantly she is an ambassador of humanity. Her example teaches us that in an imperfect world the only true success is a life free from regret.
Although tested time and again, Oliver never gave in; and for that, she has nothing to be sorry about.