By Erin Dunne, UD Athletics Media Relations Student Intern

Throughout their respective careers, many athletes will endure a variety of losses: falling short in a big game, missing out on a career record, failing to score a goal on an open net, or sustaining a career-ending injury.

However, not all losses occur on the field. Yet, they can still impact performance and concentration, providing an obstacle for athletes to hurdle over.

For University of Delaware track & field standout Shanel Dickens, it was a tragic car accident that resulted in the loss of both of her parents.

Fresh off of her freshman season and ready to embrace a summer of recovery, Dickens said June 5, 2013 was “pretty much a normal day.”

Until it wasn’t.

With one knock on her door, Dickens’ life would change forever.

Police showed up bearing the news to Dickens and her two younger brothers of what had happened to her parents.

“At first when someone told me, I really just kind of stared,” remarked Dickens. “I just kind of looked at them and stared, like ‘no, you’re wrong.’ It was somewhat of a denial.”

Dickens’ parents, mother Priscilla and stepfather Eduardo, had been active and respected members of Delaware’s Cape Henlopen community.

One of her stepfather’s main connections with Dickens was through a mutual love of sports. Her parents enjoyed watching her perform and were a huge part of her decision to join the track and field program at Delaware.

Dickens now endures a daily mental battle with overcoming the loss of not only her parents, but also her biggest supporters on the field.

“I’ve seen when there is a mental breakdown because they are not there for her race,” UD track & field and cross country head coach Wendy McFarlane commented. “I know she struggled with that her sophomore year, it was really hard for her to come back race after race and feel strong and confident, knowing that she didn’t have their support.”

Now a rising senior, Dickens fuels herself by keeping the memory of her parents alive every time she steps onto the track. Dickens turns to new methods for support. She wears her mother’s ring every time she races and mentally prepares herself as she remembers the pep talks her stepfather would give prior to every competition.

“There are days when she is in competition and thinking ‘what if my parents were here,’” said McFarlane.  “She goes into competition doing it for them and taking that strength into her event.”

Dickens also turns to her family members, particularly her aunt and uncle, who always remind her to carry her family in her heart as she steps onto the track.

“They tell me to just remember that my parents are there with me, they’re the wings on my feet,” said Dickens, who placed fifth in the 800 meters at the Colonial Athletic Association Outdoor Championships in May and ranks No. 2 all-time at Delaware in the event with a personal best time of 2:11.58. “Everyone just keeps reminding me to think of them, how they would want me to do, what they would say about races.”

“She’s always doing it for the memory of them and they’re still in her life through track, which is a good way to think about it,” noted Hannah Pepper, a fellow Cape Henlopen High School graduate and Delaware track and field teammate.

However, despite maintaining a positive outlook on life, Dickens does struggle emotionally when times get tough.

“Sometimes I have a day where I just shut down, I can’t go to class or anything, but since I’m from Delaware, I can drive home,” Dickens mentioned. “When I tell a family member that I’m coming home, they know I just need the support of my family.”

Where Dickens’ family cannot be, the Blue Hens have turned into her extended family.

“I can go to any of them,” said Dickens of her teammates. “Sometimes if I come into the locker room, I can just hug them and nine times out of 10, they know what it’s for. They know ‘she’s just having one of those days.’”

“We tried to find different ways to support her and check on her, and not doing it in a way that would make her upset, giving her a little hug or a little note every once in a awhile,” Pepper added. “I think we all help her in different ways.”

As a coach who recruited Dickens and experienced a similar loss of her father when she was 12, McFarlane has been a source of comfort for Dickens. The two have an unspoken agreement of understanding when it comes to a bad day or moment.

“Even during the day, when Coach is in her office, I know I can just drive down there to talk to her and she will listen or she will just let me cry, if that’s what I need,” commented Dickens.

McFarlane herself says she and the team find comfort in Dickens as well, because of her high energy and caring personality.

“I notice her stepping in to help her teammates on a bad day. Even when her teammates are comforting her, she finds ways to comfort them,” McFarlane remarked. “We have those moments where I start comforting her, but then she ends up comforting me. That’s Shanel, she’s just a great person to be around.”

“Even in high school, before anything happened, she was always one that you could turn to if you had a problem,” exclaimed Pepper.  “She’s always there to support other people, make you feel welcome on the team, in the classroom or wherever.  Even though she’s been through so much, she’s always there, which is just amazing.”

A woman who has all the odds against her embraces the monumental change in her life with a positivity that makes her coaches and teammate beam with respect for her.

“This young lady, she aspires to be the best that she can be,” praised McFarlane. “Whatever she sets her mind to, she puts in the work. I’ve noticed her changes on the track, working out, competing, and always setting goals. That’s a big part of life, setting goals, striving towards them and achieving them by doing the work required.”