Ubuntu. It’s interesting how such a small word can mean so much, but it does. The small things always mean the most. It’s no different in this case. The small gestures, and small words like Ubuntu, inspired Lynchburg’s first national championship.
It was August, the first practice of the year, when Dr. Todd Olsen told the team a story about a cultural anthropologist who had traveled to Africa to conduct a research study.
The anthropologist placed a bowl of fruit underneath a tree a few hundred yards away and told a group of children that the first one to reach the tree would get to keep all the fruit. However, when he told the children to run they automatically took each other’s hands and began to run together. When they reached the tree, they sat in a circle and shared and enjoyed the fruit together. When the shocked anthropologist asked the children why they did not race one another and attempt to keep the fruit for themselves, one child spoke up and said, “Ubuntu! How can one be happy when the rest are sad?”
The South African concept of Ubuntu, translated roughly, “I am because we are,” has become the mantra and driving force of the team. Each athlete is a national champion because the team is family. The team always came first.
Dr. Olsen carries Africa in his heart, as surely as he carries his team. An epidemiologist, he has worked in Uganda for several years to improve the health care and lives of the young people scarred by decades of war. He brings that communal philosophy to all he does.
It didn’t take long for Ubuntu to be put to the test. Lynchburg started the preseason by defeating Division I University of Richmond, but the injuries soon followed.
A season-ending injury can crush the morale of a team, let alone the individual who sustains it. First the Hornets lost freshman goalkeeper Jenna Hall. Then junior Nicole Kopsidas fell to the turf, her season crashing down with her as an ACL tear took away what was supposed to be her breakthrough season.
“I was upset because I finally found my spot on this team and was going to have a great season with my best friends,” Nicole said. “‘I am because we are’ could not have been a more inspiring theme for this year for me personally because my injury gave me a chance to realize my importance to the team. I never stopped cheering my teammates on because I knew they weren’t playing just for themselves, but for me, too.”
Two of those teammates took it especially hard when the season ended for the junior midfielder. Seniors Jenn Snyder and Dana Nelsen knew they would not play alongside their friend again as a fellow Hornet. This drove them forward. They were playing for the “we.” Ubuntu.
Dana struggled with an injury herself as the season started, but did not complain as shin splints sent needles of pain up her legs making it difficult to walk, let alone play soccer.
Coach Olsen told her to take a few days off and heal. After all, the team was in the middle of loops, the most strenuous runs of the preseason. Players would run on the ragged ground toward the ropes course and back, one long loop and two short ones. Dana’s response was, “I have to do them.”
Coach gathered the team together after loops were completed, women with hands on knees trying to catch breaths in the late summer heat and humidity. Nelsen struggled to stand as pain coursed through her legs. It was at this point that Coach Olsen set the tone that carried Lynchburg to the championship… he introduced the theme of Ubuntu.
“Dana is dealing with shin splints, and that pain shoots through your knees, through your spine and explodes in your brain,” Dr. Olsen said. “That brings us to this year’s theme of Ubuntu — I am because we are. What Dana is doing exemplifies that. My pain is great, I’m hurting badly and don’t want to do this, but WE ARE. If I don’t do it, we don’t become what we can possibly be. This thing is all about reaching our potential.”
Coach Olsen always knows just what to say. Each athlete characterizes him as a father figure—goofy, motivating, inspiring, caring and passionate—all the traits of a great leader.
Twenty-five games in and the Hornets were still undefeated. They survived the early injuries and were at full strength, leading 2-0 over Montclair State University with a matchup against Messiah College set for the next day. It was at this point that the leader on the field, Angela Bosco ’14, who returned for a final season after graduating in May, went down with a knee injury. The team was morose postgame at the thought of losing her.
Ubuntu was about to course through the Lynchburg blood stream again. The Hornets did not want their teammate, the conference player of the year, to end her career that way. They decided they would defeat the No.2-ranked team in the nation on their home pitch, and they did. The power of “we” is incredibly strong. They got Angela another game.
“I couldn’t even put weight on my knee and as the days went by, I knew I had to do everything to get on the field for my team,” Angela said. “I knew I had to work as hard as I could no matter what pain I was feeling. They got that game for me and I had to get that title for them.”
She fought through rehab. She struggled and battled the doubts that her knee might not hold up, all for the team that was her family. Angela saw her team fall behind early in the national semifinal, but she was the one, bulky knee brace and all, to tie up the match. The Hornets ultimately scored in the second half to make it to their first NCAA championship game.
“It was incredible, and something I will remember my entire life,” Angela said. The Hornets had one final speech to hear and one final game to play. Coach sat down on the floor of the cramped Kansas City locker room. With his legs crossed and the team around him, he began to speak. He spoke of Angela fighting back from injury to be there for her team, of Dessi Dupuy ’15 and her energy on offense to always give her team everything she has. He spoke of Jenn’s sacrifices to come back for a final year of eligibility, and of Dana’s preseason battle with shin splints. Tears fell from the eyes of those in the room.
The team took the field and played amazing soccer that night, holding Williams College scoreless before winning in penalty kicks to claim the title. With everything that occurred over the course of the season, Williams never had a chance. They might have defeated most teams, but not a team with Ubuntu in their hearts. “I am because we are.”
This story originally appeared in the Spring 2015 edition of University of Lynchburg Magazine. For more on the latest of the accomplishments and awards garnered by the LC Women’s Soccer team, visit the women’s soccer news page.