Basketball and Bravery

Basketball gave Gracie Phelps a place to start healing after childhood abuse, and the courage to seek justice.
Story by Frances Badgett

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"She didn't back down once."
Gracie wears a lei and smiles as she walks onto the court before a game.
Gracie Phelps celebrates at Senior Night before her final home game.

Note to readers: This story contains experiences of childhood sexual abuse and the criminal justice system.

At Western, Gracie (Castaneda) Phelps, ’22, BA, threw herself into the sport she loved, embodying it with the dedication, discipline, and passion that she felt for the game.

That passion culminated in the 2021 NCAA Division II Women’s Basketball National Championships. Though they lost the final game, it was the glittering, perfect end to a trying year. Phelps was soaking up every bit of it.

“The team didn’t necessarily just set out to go to the championship,” says Phelps, a guard who played in a school record- tying 126 games with the Vikings. “We practiced and played hard, but really, we were such a close team, we just wanted to keep the season going so we could play together. Every win was another chance to be together again.” Being part of a team isn’t easy—balancing schoolwork and making early practices can be a lot for a student. But basketball isn’t just Phelps’s favorite sport. It is her lifesaver, her most consistent source of community and support during the hardest time in her life.

Phelps’s story begins in Snohomish, where she grew up in an unstable and abusive home. During her elementary school years, her stepfather sexually abused her. The abuse ended when he moved out, but the horror of the experience left Phelps with a legacy of trauma. In addition, when she stayed with her biological father, she experienced homelessness— sleeping in cars and on her grandmother’s floor—a contrast to the stability she finally had in her mother’s home.

The only sure footing Phelps could find was on the basketball court. She played for the Arlington High School Eagles, who went to the state championship twice while she was on the team.

“The thing about basketball is that the team is a family, and the coaches are mentors,” she says. “I had so much support from my basketball community throughout my life.”

Even so, Phelps kept her secret, confiding only once, to a boyfriend in high school.

“He noticed some things that were coming up for me, and I told him some of it.”

When she came to Western, Phelps was red-shirted onto the women’s basketball team. She loved the nurturing culture created by Head Coach Carmen Dolfo, ’88, BAE, and ’99, M.Ed., and Assistant Coach Stacey Turrell, ’03, BAE, and ’08, M.Ed., and the inspiration they instilled in the players. That inspiration gave Phelps courage.

“I learned so much about basketball, and I loved my coaches,” Phelps says. “They became my family.”

Playing for Western, Phelps also relished the time away from her unstable home life. She worked hard, played harder, gave every homework assignment and every practice everything she had. She majored in interdisciplinary studies, earned a teaching certificate and complete a minor in multilingual education, determined to succeed and make a better life for herself.

Meanwhile, Dolfo brought the team closer together by encouraging them to share their life experiences and motivations for playing. In that culture of compassion, Phelps felt safe enough to break her silence. With the support of counseling and the community of her coaches and teammates, Phelps mustered the courage to report her stepfather to law enforcement.

Facing him in court was a harrowing process in which her stepfather’s defense attorneys accused her of lying, destroying her family, and being the cause of the abuse. “Her strength to stand up to her abuser, as well as some very difficult defense attorneys and investigators, was so impressive,” says Dolfo, who served as a witness for Phelps. “She didn’t back down once.”

Her stepfather’s first trial ended with a hung jury, but Phelps was ready to go through it all again.

“I wasn’t going to let it end there.”

With her teammates, coaches, and ex-boyfriend from high school behind her in the courtroom, and with the courage she found in the sport she loved, Phelps saw her stepfather convicted at his second trial. He is serving time in prison.

“The day we all went to the sentencing was a rough and special day,” Dolfo says. “Listening to her address her abuser with clarity, directness and incredible strength was so powerful.”

Phelps’s teammate and best friend Dani Iwami, ’22, B.A., environmental studies, also has watched her friend’s resolve on both the basketball court and in the court of law. “Gracie has taught me just how far courage can take you,” Iwami says. “It requires so much courage to revisit such terrible memories but the way she has distinguished how important it was for her to make things right for herself no matter what is so inspiring and brave.”

And Phelps? She’s now student-teaching and coaching girls basketball at Blaine High School, launching a career inspiring and supporting a whole new generation of young players.

“I know she’s going to give that same courage to young girls who may be struggling to speak up for themselves,” Iwami says. “I am so proud of Gracie and inspired by her strength. I know she’ll continue to do amazing things in her life.”

While she is still healing from years of abuse, Phelps gathers so much courage from the team she loves and from her husband Zach Phelps, a former student assistant on the women’s basketball team who is now a librarian and coach at Nooksack Valley Middle School.

Moved by Gracie Phelps’s story, Director of Athletic Communications Jeff Evans nominated her for an NCAA Inspiration Award, which “honors those who used perseverance, dedication and determination to overcome a life-altering situation and become role models, giving hope and inspiration to others.”

In January, Phelps traveled to San Antonio to receive the award.

“The experience validated even more for me the truth behind how sports are so much bigger than X’s and O’s,” she says. “Sports truly are a launching point for so many amazing things in life to come, and you learn so many lessons and learn who you are as a person through things like sports.”

After the ceremony, Phelps celebrated with her family at a private dinner courtesy of the NCAA. “I think the most special part about it all was the fact that my family was there to celebrate with to me,” she says. “It was pretty special to be able to represent Western in this way. I feel very honored and very thankful.”

“Gracie has taught me just how far courage can take you.”
Gracie stands on a ladder, smiles and holds a cut-off piece of the basketball net next to her.
Phelps grabs a souvenir after winning the 2022 NCAA II West Regional title.
Gracie, wearing a fancy green dress, stands with family members on a stage at the NCAA Honors event.
Phelps was delighted that her family was there when she accepted the NCAA’s Inspiration Award in San Antonio.

is Western’s assistant director of Marketing and Communications for Advancement.