Gracie’s story could have been simply the tragic tale of a little girl suffering unspeakable abuse.
Instead, Gracie Phelps is using her story to speak out against violence and to inspire the victims of trauma.
“I’ve had to say some really hard things (in public),” said the Blaine girls basketball head coach. “I’m able to do that now, so there can be good to come out of it. Me going through this might help it not happen to another five people or even one person.”
Gracie’s willingness to share what happened to her throughout her childhood at the hands of her stepfather has not only brought publicity to a terrible problem in our society but it earned her a prestigious award.
The NCAA, which oversees athletics at almost all four-year colleges in the United States, honored her with its 2023 inspiration award on Jan. 11 at the NCAA Honors Celebration in San Antonio.
The award is given to individuals who “used perseverance, dedication, and determination to overcome a life-altering situation and become role models, giving hope and inspiration to others.”
“There were a lot of emotions,” the 24-year-old said of the ceremony, which she attended with her family. “I’ve done a lot of videos, speeches, articles … all are steps toward closure. It’s hard to go back, to understand why I’m here. But I can celebrate. I was able to put a stop to it.”
While in high school, Gracie tried to share some things with close friends, but it wasn’t until recently, as a member of the Western Washington University women’s basketball team, that she decided to take the next step and talk with her coach, Carmen Dolfo. Dolfo helped Gracie find a counselor and supported her when she decided to go to the police and eventually tell about her experience to the media.
Hear Gracie’s story as shared on a video that was played at the NCAA Honors Celebration.
Even her players at Blaine hadn’t heard Gracie’s story until after the season started. But once they did, it made an impact on their lives, said seniors Shaelyn Shields and Gillian Rea.
“We didn’t know her but you felt like you knew her,” Shields said of the first-year coach. “She was always looking at the positive things. You knew you could trust her as a coach. I knew she played with Western, but after hearing about that (what she went through), I felt her compassion. It confirmed what a special person she was.”
Rea agreed: “I’d never played basketball before this year. Gracie made me feel more comfortable. She was encouraging and never looked down on me. Then I read an article about her; that made me like her even more. It exemplified how strong she is. Life can be hard but she showed you can get through anything if you have people around to help you.”
Grace said that was the message she hoped to get across to those who have gone through similar ordeals: that you are strong enough to get through it if you find those you can trust to help you.
But it wasn’t easy for her to get to that point in her life.
For much of her childhood, little Gracie Castaneda (Phelps is her married name) lived a nightmare in her own home. When the sexual abuse ended after her mother divorced the abuser, Gracie had to endure the emotional and mental pain that remained and can still torment her in times of weakness.
“It’s a constant work in progress, shutting the door on emotions that go way back,” she said. “It’s a lot of work, and it’ll be a lot of work forever. But it gets easier.”
Two things helped make it easier: sports and people who cared.
From an early age, sports were a safe haven for the Arlington native. She ran cross country in the fall, played basketball in the winter, competed in track in the spring, and played on select hoops teams in the summer.
“Any excuse to get out of the house,” she said. “I’d be gone every weekend, stay with teammates’ families, be constantly busy.”
Her drive and athletic talent helped her letter all four years in the three sports, but she found the most success in basketball.
She helped the Eagles make it to state four times, reaching the state championship game her freshman and senior seasons. She was all-conference her final two years, an all-state tournament selection her junior season, and the conference player of the year her senior season.
Success on the basketball court followed her to Western. After redshirting her freshman year, she ended up playing five seasons because of the COVID year. Among her accomplishments was playing in 126 games for the Vikings, which ties a school record.
Her career was capped last March when she and the Vikings reached the NCAA Division II national championship game. The second-place finish was the highest for the highly successful women’s program.
More important than finding success on the court at Western, she found friends and people she could trust and be transparent with. Those included Dolfo and Gracie’s teammates, whom she called sisters.
Her coaches and teammates were by her side when she went through two trials in 2019 and 2021, when she was not only forced to face her abuser and recount all that was done to her but was relentlessly questioned on the stand despite being the victim.
“It is really hard if you don’t have a support system,” Gracie said. “You have to find a way to lean on people around you, to stay strong. I believe there’s a reason (she went through it all). Now I feel strong enough to help someone else so they don’t have to go through it alone.”
While the first trial ended in a hung jury, the second trial led to a guilty verdict, and the abuser was sentenced to many years in prison.
And now Gracie can go on with her life. She married Zach Phelps last August, earned her teaching degree, and was named the head coach at Blaine.
“Everyone knows someone (who has gone through something like this),” she said. “It’s awful. But if we don’t speak out, it only gets harder.
“I want to help inspire others to speak out. I don’t know what it will be — teaching, coaching, working with kids. But I want to be a light, to be a role model.”
Thanks to her story, Gracie is just that: a light, a role model, an inspiration.
If you or someone you know is dealing with or has experienced domestic violence, Gracie Phelps recommends contacting DVSAS (Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services) in Bellingham at (877) 715-1563. They provide advocates, counseling, help with law enforcement, a hotline, and other resources and services. For more information, visit www.dvsas.org.
Jim Carberry is a former Bellingham Herald sports editor and author of several books on Whatcom County prep basketball. Follow him on Twitter @whatcomhoops and visit the Whatcom Hoops Facebook page.