More than a no nonsense nun, this is how you coached us for life

To: Sister Maria

From: Theresa Wenzel (As told to Lauren Brill)

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Dear Sister Maria,

In the mid 80’s you went on the Late Show with Joan Rivers. You spoke about women’s professional basketball nearly a decade before the WNBA came into existence. You, Sister Maria, were a visionary – a visionary who coached your players for the world you were trying to create instead of the one in which we currently lived.  

Unlike most nuns, you were a trendsetter, wearing fashionable warmups like Nike and Adidas. You had this attitude that just because something was always done a certain way, it does not mean it is the only way or the best way to continue to do it. You were a change manager before change management existed.

You didn’t want us to live up to other people’s standards, but instead, you wanted us to create our own. You wanted us to lead by example and set the bar for others.

You didn’t want us to live up to other people’s standards, but instead, you wanted us to create our own.

We first met when I was in seventh or eighth grade. I heard you speak at a banquet. While I perceived you as an intimidating presence, right away, I knew I wanted to play for you. Coaching at both the collegiate and high school levels, you exuded confidence, determination, compassion and enthusiasm. Even at such a young age, I could tell that you wanted to make your athletes great people, not just great players. So, I made the tough decision to go to high school 30 minutes from my house, apart from my older sister and out of my comfort zone.

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At the start of school, I was very quiet. Quite frankly, I was just scared to be there. You suggested I play volleyball. I told you I didn’t want to because I wanted to focus on academics. You wouldn’t let up, telling my parents when they picked me up from school that you were confident that I could keep my grades up and play a fall sport. So, I ended up playing four years of volleyball and more importantly, I got involved in school and started to make friends.

In basketball, you didn’t allow freshmen to play varsity regardless of their talent or skill level. But junior varsity and varsity practiced together. Our practices were tough and extremely efficient. You had incredible attention to detail and we got more done in two hours than any other team in the area. You emphasized the importance of playing for the name on the front of our jersey – not the back. You wanted our best effort every day and you taught us to play for more, including our teammates and our school.

My junior year, we weren’t necessarily the most talented team to come through Sacred Heart. But a month before the end of the season, we lost a tournament we had no business losing. We beat ourselves and you didn’t want us to forget it. For the remainder of the season, you made us wear the tournament t-shirt to practice every single day. Some of my teammates refused to wash it because they thought it was ridiculous, but my dad told me to wash mine every night, so I’d learn a lesson. That year we made it to the state championship game while learning some very valuable life lessons.

Down at halftime, one of our teammates pulled out the t-shirts we had been wearing every single day and said, “We didn’t get this far not to win this game.” 

We came out of halftime strong and focused and ended up winning the game and the state title. It was the first state title for you and us at Sacred Heart!

At the time, I didn’t fully understand all the life lessons you were teaching me (and my teammates). Who as a teenager does? I know there were times we didn’t agree, but you certainly taught us to be strong, independent and driven women. You wanted us to go to college and continue to advance our education. Our desired professions were not your focus. You wanted us to be prepared for the tough and challenging world regardless if our goals included becoming a doctor, lawyer, CEO, or stay-at-home mom. Your goal was to develop confident, intelligent and resourceful young women, who positively impacted society. You knew the demands would only get greater for each of us as we got older. 

As a coach, you wanted to be the best in the area regardless of gender. Unapologetically, you challenged the powers that be, always fighting for equal resources and opportunities for girls’/women’s sports. Outside of my mom, I never saw another female who was so strong, determined and outspoken.  

After our state championship, you moved on to coach at Marquette, where you recruited me to play for you. You ended up leaving Marquette before I graduated, then took some time away from basketball to take care of your aging mom. Ultimately, you went back to Sacred Heart. During your time away from the game, I went on to coach at the high school and collegiate levels. By age 23, I became a head coach at Mount Mercy before going on to coach at Canisius and then taking an administrative role at Siena, where I ultimately got promoted to associate athletic director. We lost touch for a while, but the strong foundation you taught me at Sacred Heart was always present and I was always grateful and thankful for you. After Siena, I moved to Atlanta and spent ten years at Georgia Tech, where I started as business manager but earned the title and responsibilities of associate athletic director and senior women’s administrator. Between the ages of 23 and 46, I also left two of my jobs without having jobs. I know I would not have survived those decisions without the core values and faith you and my parents instilled in me. Thank you.

Throughout my career, I often emulated my leadership after you: firm, fair and consistent, while being relentless in the pursuit of excellence. When I heard comments or ideas in meetings that I thought were morally/legally wrong, unfair or outdated, I spoke up. It was tough because you know that I prefer to listen instead of speak, but you taught us to fight firmly for what is right. It wasn’t just about changing the world for the sake of change. You wanted us to change the world for the sake of making it better.

It wasn’t just about changing the world for the sake of change. You wanted us to change the world for the sake of making it better.

In 2015, after amassing a 343-66 record, your career at Sacred Heart abruptly ended, as your contract was not renewed. Then, less than two years later, you passed away after a 15-year hard-fought battle with Breast cancer.  I want you to know you’re loved and missed by many, and your lessons live on with each of us. 

 At the time of your passing, I was president of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream, a women’s professional basketball team.  

Your brother came up to me at your funeral and said, “Wow! She was talking about women’s professional basketball years ago on The Late Show and you ended up being president of a WNBA team.” 

 At that moment, I realized that it was because you had the vision to prepare me for opportunities that didn’t yet exist that I had the strength, confidence and skill set to rise to the occasion. Thank you. 

Unfortunately, these last few years, I have noticed strong female coaches, who continue to advocate for equity with their student-athletes while holding high daily expectations as you did for us, are getting fired or not renewed.   I believe female coaches are being held to different standards than their male counterparts.  

I have seen many in sports teach our young girls to be nice and smart while not prioritizing the importance of teaching them how to be confident, courageous and resilient. If we want to continue breaking barriers and creating an equitable society like you taught us, I believe we have to do a better job with our priorities.

That’s why I now own a consulting company, Ordinary to Extraordinary, and a nonprofit, Athletes to Leaders. I am working with our A2L team on a change management program that teaches athletes ages 15 to 30 to be more resilient and thrive in constant change while developing emotionally, socially, financially and physically.

While the world isn’t as advanced and equitable as it should be in 2021, I am trying to create a new standard. This way, like you, did for me, I can prepare the next generation with the strength, courage and resilience to seize opportunities in a world that is better than the one we have today.

Thank you for the foundation and faith that formed my future.

Theresa Wenzel
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