For my money, there’s nothing more exciting than being in the thick of a NIRSA Championship Series season. The flag football season is well underway with several sites hosting exciting and engaging regional tournaments. There are posts upon posts on my colleagues’ social media sites (speaking of social media, are you following @nirsachamp on Twitter and Instagram?) recording the dedication and energy that teams, student officials, and volunteers are bringing each weekend.
As we build up to the culmination of the flag football season in early January, planning calls for the National Flag Football Championship are becoming more frequent. And now, as I type this in Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, I’m on my way to watch and chronicle 99 soccer teams competing for their respective division titles at the National Soccer Championship in Round Rock, Texas (which is also home to our aforementioned flag football championship). I can’t help but also eavesdrop on some of the soccer teams that have posted up at the gate for our flight, and their enthusiasm and excitement for this coming championship is off the charts. It’s the kind of passion we dream of fostering with teams!
An aspect of the Championship Series that is particularly special to me is the opportunity to work alongside the most brilliant and devoted people in collegiate recreation and NIRSA. They volunteer their time, dynamism, and skills to create a premier atmosphere for our participants. The customer service, attention to detail, and genuine care shown by our volunteers is the hallmark for which the Championship Series stands. Over the years, thanks to the Championship Series, I have been able to meet and get to know these individuals and have developed friendships and bonds I would never have thought possible. The Series welcomes all individuals to learn, grow, and compete, and I enjoy meeting new professionals and students just as much as I enjoy seeing returning volunteers and old friends.
During this time of year, though, I am reminded of one particular person. This person is not only a fixture and leader within the Championship Series, but she is also an excellent mentor, and even better friend to so many in and out of collegiate recreation. Her name is Sarah Fain, and she is loved.
An eternal legacy
Sarah Fain began her career as an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and soon after graduation acquired her master’s degree at Georgia Southern University. GSU eventually became her home in collegiate recreation in 2002 after stints at Georgia College and Sam Houston State University.
Sarah quickly began working regional and national tournaments, lending her expertise and service to the Series. Her ability to keep an even keel in the most tumultuous times and her knack for keeping committees and tournaments meticulously organized were calling cards that helped her get selected to serve on various committees. What Sarah also provided was cheerfulness, warmth, inclusion, and humanity. People didn’t feel like strangers around Sarah, and she welcomed every volunteer and participant with open arms. When you served with the Series, you were important—to everyone else serving and to Sarah herself. She made sure everyone felt this way. I got to experience this feeling many times while working national tournaments with her, and it brought an ease and comfort to me each time.
Sarah’s leadership was astounding. She chaired several all-tournament and competition committees and also served as a tournament director multiple times for the Championship Series. While the list of accolades for Sarah is extensive (including the NIRSA Service Award for her work with the Championship Series), what made her stand out was her selflessness and ability to seize opportunities to mentor and encourage. Personally, I remember having conversations about topics like the direction of campus recreation as well as simply getting advice from her that was meaningful and heartfelt. That’s just who she was. Her compassion, caring, and kindness were what made working with her valuable and exciting. She was ready to teach and support at any given time.
Sarah was battling colon cancer during the latter part of her time in the Championship Series but was still active up to her role as All-Tournament Director at the 2016 National Flag Football Championship; she was ready to serve and mentor just like at any other time. In 2017, Sarah passed away following her battle with cancer. She fought her illness with grace and tenacity. It was a difficult loss for our community because of the roles she had played in our lives. She was a professional, mentor, friend, and family.
While she may no longer be physically present, her spirit and love are very much so. They continue to manifest in the memories and stories told by friends, colleagues, and family. The shouts of competition, the laughter with volunteers turned friends, the moments of learning and growth…all of these, and more, wouldn’t be what they are today within the Championship Series without Sarah’s energy and passion.
The Sarah Fain Distinguished Service Award is the highest honor bestowed upon those involved in the Championship Series. It is a representation of selfless service and commitment to the Championship Series and its participants and volunteers. In April, at the 2020 NIRSA Annual Conference & Campus Rec Expo, we will again present this honor to an individual who has shown the same type of service Sarah did during her involvement. This award is a reminder that giving of yourself is the most rewarding and worthy trait we can celebrate.
I don’t like speaking in the past tense. Doing so usually means that what has happened or existed no longer continues. The legacy and love that Sarah has still exists—it’s as strong and prevalent as ever. We are better for having known her. She is a professional, she is a mentor, she is a friend, and she is family.
Most of all, she is loved.