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Alina Atayan’s impact went deeper than numbers for WLAX

August 3, 2017

“I really believe that she’ll never know               how many people she helped,”

— Sharon Robinson, Alina Atayan's high school coach

Alina Atayan’s line on the stat sheet doesn’t jump off the page. In her four years of eligibility with the Marquette women’s lacrosse team, she shot the ball twice, picked up three ground balls and dished one assist.

Any discussion of Atayan’s impact, both at and beyond Marquette, has to start with the collection of box scores buried deep in the drawer. There’s nothing on any recap that shows how much of a difference she made by running domestic violence workshops. There’s no “Teammates Helped Per 40 Minutes” column to reflect how many times she stayed after practice to work with someone. And while it’s possible to measure how much money Atayan helped raise for pancreatic cancer research at Marquette, she never concerned herself with the exact figure.

“I want to be remembered as someone who made a positive impact and generally cared about people,” Atayan said. “I don’t necessarily care about how much money I raised or the quantity of the things I’ve done; just the quality of it.”

Those close to Atayan describe her as the kind of person everybody wants on their team, and even more people want in their community. “(Alina) had a passion for everything and that passion was contagious. It was easy for us to want to support her,” assistant coach Caitlin Fifield said about her former player.

“She’s scrappy and she doesn’t quit” said Sharon Robinson, who coached Atayan at Bronxville High School in Bronxville, New York. “Alina recognizes that there are other people that need advocacy and she’s willing to step up and fight for them.”

Long before Atayan fought for others, she learned how to fight for herself as a practitioner of both karate and jiu jitsu. She picked both of them up at age seven with the support of her mom, a former New York City police officer that wanted her daughter to be proficient in self-defense tactics.

Atayan enrolled in the Sanchin Dojo, where classes were not separated by age or gender. It meant that Atayan, who never stood any taller than 5-foot-1, trained alongside adults for the entirety of her childhood.

Atayan (left) had to fight every person in her dojo on the day of her sensei test. She described it as the “worst and best day of my life.” (Photo courtesy of Alina Atayan.)

“When I was younger, there’d be people in there that were in their twenties or (older). It was such a wide variety and it was really cool,” Atayan said.

Unbeknownst to Atayan, martial arts would help her in lacrosse by teaching emotional control. It’s rare that the average person would ever need to perfectly perform a jujitsu technique, but the inner fortitude required to become a sensei – which she did at age 15, sooner than anyone else in her dojo’s history – translates to every sport.

“A lot of people ignore or don’t realize that a lot of these momentum changes that happen in any sport are partly because of people’s emotions,” Atayan said. “Martial arts helped me take a step back and recognize what happened, but not let it get in the way of what I’m going to do next.”

“Next” meant high school lacrosse, where she scored over 60 goals and 40 assists during her three-year varsity career at a position that could best be described as ABG — anything but goalie. “I played anything they wanted
me to,” Atayan remembered. “My mom would always make fun of me
because on the roster it would say ‘attack, midfield, defense.’”

Coach Robinson could have also added “scout” to the list of designations
on Atayan’s roster row. Atayan would go to the games of Bronxville’s
upcoming opponents on her off days, take notes and report back to the
team. She did this every week on a volunteer basis.

Atayan started playing lacrosse in fourth grade. According to Atayan, her parents didn’t know what lacrosse was at the time. (Photo courtesy of Sharon Robinson.)

“It’s not something we ask of anyone. That’s too much to ask of a high school kid who is doing so much, but she’s one of those kids that went above and beyond,” Robinson said.

As Atayan moved throughout her high school career, she started looking at “every college on the planet” for lacrosse. There was something about moving back to the Midwest and closer to her family’s Michigan roots that appealed to her. One school stood out from the rest fairly early on.

“When I was visiting schools initially, you get your general first impression like, ‘oh, this is pretty cool,’” Atayan said. “There was something different about Marquette though…I told my dad that I thought grandma would have really liked this.”

Virginia Atayan didn’t get to see much of her granddaughter’s childhood. By the time Alina was seven, Virginia had already been told that pancreatic cancer would take her life in approximately six months. She refused to let it stop her. Alina remembers how her grandmother flew from Michigan to Disneyland and joined the rest of their family on a vacation after the diagnosis.

“She’d have to take breaks because she’d get tired or she’d need some alone time, but I think she did everything she could to put a happy face on,” Atayan said. “She’s always sacrificed and was someone who I look to as a role model.”

When there were no more experimental treatments left to try, Virginia stopped chemotherapy. She died in October 2002, two years after doctors told her she had six months to live.

A decade later, Atayan was at Marquette’s campus learning about the lacrosse team’s philanthropic cause: fundraising for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. The team has raised just shy of $40,000 for research in the five years since Black made it the team philanthropy. “We spend our whole year fundraising and raising awareness and bringing more attention to the cause,” Fifield said.

Atayan immediately engaged in every single fundraising and awareness activity on the team calendar, eventually becoming the philanthropy coordinator. If there was a planning meeting, Atayan would be there no matter what. If there was a raffle, Atayan would be the one wrangling items to put in gift baskets.

Perhaps the most meaningful service Atayan performed for cancer patients had nothing to do with money. She and several teammates started putting together chemotherapy care packages for hospitals to distribute to patients. These kits were filled with hats, chap stick, hand sanitizer, puzzles and other items to help patients through one of the most difficult parts of cancer treatment. “I think that’s a wonderful thing she did,” said Brooke Caviglia, a manager at the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. “It’s another special touch to be able to impact patients, especially pancreatic cancer patients that are going through treatments.”

Atayan (second row on the left) stands with other student ambassadors for One Love. Marquette women’s lacrosse head coach Meredith Black nominated Atayan for One Love’s Unsung Hero award, saying she had “an incredibly big heart.” (Photo courtesy of Alina Atayan.)

The other service initiative Atayan spearheaded in college began in high school. On May 3, 2010, University of Virginia lacrosse player Yeardley Love was beaten to death by her ex-boyfriend. Robinson, Love’s cousin, became a leading advocate for One Love, an organization formed in Yeardley’s memory dedicated to relationship violence education.

It wasn’t long before Atayan, who was already involved with One Love in high school, started an official branch at Marquette. The next step was the hard part: Scheduling workshops with groups to talk frankly about relationship violence.

“It’s hard sometimes to start that kind of conversation and even get people to schedule a workshop like that,” Atayan said.

With Atayan’s urging, though, people began to schedule them. Groups ranging from club rugby to ROTC to the Kappa Sigma fraternity all took part in sessions Atayan facilitated. By the time Atayan left the team, the One Love club had grown from one member to 11. Its sessions had reached hundreds of students over the course of four years.

“She sent the first email to me saying ‘this is something I would like to do,’ but a lot of people send the first email and never actually follow through,” Robinson observed. “Alina really kind of became an all-star.”

Marquette’s coaches and veteran players sensed Atayan’s penchant for leadership early in her career. Although Atayan didn’t get a lot of playing time, the team’s top brass utilized her in other ways, one of which was to put her in situations where she could influence younger players. Teammate Kate Glaros experienced that on one of her first practices as a freshman last year.

“Our first day of conditioning, we had a run test and I wasn’t doing very well. One of the other players put Alina next to me to try to motivate me because she would just work so hard. Having her near me and seeing her do that motivated me to work harder and run faster,” Glaros said.

One Love recognized Atayan’s contributions on the lacrosse field and on campus by naming her a finalist for the Unsung Hero Award. Each year, the organization recognizes two Division I lacrosse players – one male and one female – that “help their teams achieve success in ways that cannot be measured in goals, saves or ground balls.”

Although Atayan did not win the award, she considers it an honor to have even been nominated. “It’s something that I kind of always wanted … being recognized was special to me especially because you had to be nominated. It was great that people recognized what I was doing was good and having a positive impact.”

After scoring her only goal, Atayan jumped into the arms of teammate Kenzie Brown. “She’s pretty tall so it looks like I’m a little monkey in her arms,” Atayan joked.

“I really believe that she’ll never know how many people she helped,” Robinson added.

As unimportant as Atayan’s stat line is to this story, there is a number worth mentioning. In four years, Atayan scored one goal. It came in her freshman year during the final minute of a 14-6 victory over Cincinnati, the first BIG EAST win in Marquette women’s lacrosse history. Teammate Claire Costanza advanced the ball down the left side of the field and set Atayan up right in front of the cage.

“I barely remember catching the ball and then shooting it. I wasn’t looking,” Atayan said. “I just remember jumping into the arms of the first person I saw.”

No recording of that game exists today, which means the only visual evidence of the goal came from a picture Atayan’s father took, which is so blurry that he jokingly refers to it as “the Loch Ness Monster photo.”

Atayan still treasures that photo of her lone goal as a Marquette lacrosse player because of all the nights it could have happened on, it happened on the night of
Marquette’s annual Pan Can game – the biggest fundraiser for pancreatic cancer
research on the team’s calendar.

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