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Holy Cross rower Grace Rett had a wish. In her death, family and teammates are making it come true

Grace Rett (back row, third from left) participated in the Head of the Charles with her Holy Cross teammates last fall. When they resumed training for the season in January, they headed to Florida, where the deadly crash took Grace's life. Back row, from left: Maegan Moriarty, Lauren Colby, Rett, Josie Ascione. Middle row: Allie Russo, Anne Comcowich, Paige Cohen, Shea Kirby. Bottom: Claire D'Attoma.
Grace Rett (back row, third from left) participated in the Head of the Charles with her Holy Cross teammates last fall. When they resumed training for the season in January, they headed to Florida, where the deadly crash took Grace's life. Back row, from left: Maegan Moriarty, Lauren Colby, Rett, Josie Ascione. Middle row: Allie Russo, Anne Comcowich, Paige Cohen, Shea Kirby. Bottom: Claire D'Attoma.Courtesy/Tim Kirby (Custom credit)

They all say the same thing. Grace Rett was the heart of the team. If you roomed with her on a road trip and there were two beds and a cot, Grace would take the cot. If you had to miss morning lift because of ROTC commitments, Grace would meet you at the campus gym at 10 p.m. and do her fourth workout of the day, just to keep you company.

She was dedicated, smart, funny, and noble. She was also prompt, which is maybe why she wound up riding shotgun in the lead van when the Holy Cross women’s rowing team set out for morning practice on a local lagoon in Vero Beach, Fla., in January.

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It was the day after Grace’s 20th birthday and just a month after she’d broken a world record by rowing for 62 hours and 3 seconds on an indoor rowing machine at the campus athletic center.

Grace Rett was the consummate leader on the Holy Cross women's rowing team.
Grace Rett was the consummate leader on the Holy Cross women's rowing team.Rett family

On Jan. 15, 2020, Grace Rett was killed instantly when Holy Cross’s rented team transport van was struck by a red pickup driving north on Indian River Boulevard in Vero Beach. The Holy Cross head coach — who’d been driving — and six other members of the team were hospitalized after the crash, three of the young women transported via helicopter.

No one who was there that day will ever be the same, but this weekend the survivors of the crash, all members of the Holy Cross team, and the expansive Grace Rett Community will engage in a virtual rowing challenge designed to honor Grace’s record and build a gym in her name at Our Lady of the Valley Regional School in Uxbridge.

Learn more: Details about the Rett family fundraiser for the G.R.A.C.E. Center or follow @givingforgrace on Instagram

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Grace attended OLV, a school with no gym, from grades K-8 and told her parents that she would like to put a gym on the site someday if she ever had the means. With help from an anonymous donor who pledged $1 million, the school has raised $2.5 million and hopes to get closer to the $3.5 million finish line this weekend. If all goes according to plan, crews will break ground on the G.R.A.C.E. Center in April with the first events scheduled for the fall of 2021.

At long last: home games for Our Lady of the Valley.

“These kids at that school really deserve a gym,” says Chris Rett, Grace’s dad, a native of Milford who raised Grace and her sister, Brianne, in Uxbridge with Mary Jo, a music teacher at Our Lady. “They put out a great education and compete in all sports even though they don’t have a gym.”

Mary Jo, Brianne, and Chris Rett are the driving force behind fulfilling their daughter and sister's dream: To build a gym at Our Lady of the Valley in Uxbridge.
Mary Jo, Brianne, and Chris Rett are the driving force behind fulfilling their daughter and sister's dream: To build a gym at Our Lady of the Valley in Uxbridge.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

There’s some nice symmetry here. In 1947, a tiny Catholic school from central Massachusetts won the NCAA basketball tournament even though freshman guard Bob Cousy and his Holy Cross teammates had no home gym.

Grace Rett was all about Holy Cross. Her teammates are all about Holy Cross. And this weekend they’re fulfilling the Jesuit school’s stated mission “to lead all its members to make the best of their own talents, to work together, to be sensitive to one another, to serve others . . . "

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Home for the extended Christmas break in 2019-20, Holy Cross’s women’s rowers were instructed to fly to Orlando on the morning of Jan. 14. Coach Patrick Diggins and assistant coach Stephanie Ricker would be picking them up in vans at the Orlando airport and driving 107 miles southeast to Vero Beach, where the team was booked in the Jackie Robinson Training Complex — the same site where pioneer Robinson and Sandy Koufax trained when it was Dodgertown in the second half of the 20th century.

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It was Grace Rett’s 20th birthday. Her folks drove her from Uxbridge to T.F. Green Airport in Providence. Squeezing every last moment with their oldest daughter, they parked and walked her inside, reminding her that they would FaceTime her at exactly 6:36 p.m., as they did every year. That was the exact time that Grace was born at Milford Hospital in 2000. Mary Jo took a photo of Grace before she went to her gate.

Grace Rett's mother, Mary Jo, took this photo of her daughter at T.F. Green Airport the day before Grace died.
Grace Rett's mother, Mary Jo, took this photo of her daughter at T.F. Green Airport the day before Grace died.Courtesy/Mary Jo Rett (Custom credit)

Shea Kirby, Grace’s ROTC teammate, flew to Orlando from Chicago. Maggie O’Leary, a freshman coxswain from Waterbury, Conn., came in from Hartford. Margaux Dowdle, a freshman from Newton, and Anne Comcowich, a sophomore from Hopkinton, were on early flights out of Logan. Anne expected to see Hannah Strom (Marion) on her flight, but Hannah was left behind because she’d booked a 7 p.m. flight instead of 7 a.m. They laughed about it at Logan, as Hannah arranged to get on a later flight that morning.

The student-athletes eventually found one another in Orlando, connected with the coaches, and rode the vans to Vero. After they unpacked, they got out to the lake and assembled boats that had been driven down from Boston. They even had time to get out on the lagoon. It was a good day. Vero Beach in January beats Chicago in January every time.

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Back at the barracks, Maggie and Anne led a mission to Publix (finding a Publix in Florida is like finding a Dunkin’ in Mass.) and picked up a couple of cakes for Grace’s birthday. One was a Reese’s peanut butter ice cream cake and the folks at the cafeteria at Jackie Robinson let them store the cake in the freezer.

Grace’s birthday gathering in the cafeteria was a blast. The HC athletes shared the space with a group of young baseball umpires in training who were staying at the facility. Grace and Shea flirted with the Blues and when Grace’s folks called at 6:36, Chris and Mary Jo Rett noted the umpires celebrating Grace’s birthday with the rowers.

Ever vigilant, Coach Diggins didn’t want Shea to eat any cake — he was worried about her weight — but that just made Grace more determined to make sure Shea got the first piece of ice cream cake. It is what teammates do.

Grace shared her living quarters with two freshmen, including 5-foot coxswain Maggie. Three women, two beds, one cot.

“My whole job is to be small," Maggie told Grace. “I will take the cot."

Grace, an upperclassman who stood 5 feet 7 inches and could dead lift 300 pounds, would not have it. Grace took the cot. More leadership 101.

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Grace Rett (second from left) poses with her teammates at the Head of the Charles in 2019, months before the tragedy.
Grace Rett (second from left) poses with her teammates at the Head of the Charles in 2019, months before the tragedy.Courtesy (Custom credit)

The next day, Grace, Maggie, and Josie Ascione — the other freshman in the room — woke up early for breakfast. After eating, they went back to the room to put on sunscreen. There was no dawdling.

“I was staying with two competitive girls, ‘hardos’ if you will,” recalled Maggie. “We were not going to be late. We got to the pickup spot very early. That was kind of what determined our van. Coach just happened to pull up first and we were ready to get after it. It was just random but that’s how it works.”

Grace hopped into the lead van, driven by Diggins, who was in his 35th year as women’s rowing coach. Maggie got in next. Then Hannah, then Anne. Then a bunch of women to the back rows.

“I don’t remember exactly why I got into the van that I did," recalled Anne. “But I was the one who closed the door. If I had known what was going to happen, I wouldn’t have done that."

Just after 7 a.m., the two vans full of Holy Cross rowers set out for the lagoon where they had practiced one day earlier. In her efforts to follow Coach Diggins’s van, Coach Ricker got separated briefly, but was able to get back behind the lead van when the team stopped as a train crossed a railroad stop.

Coming up on 7:30, Anne, who was sitting directly behind Grace, texted “Good morning” to her boyfriend back at school, then nodded off. Maggie, the coxswain, was on the far left of that endangered row. Hannah was in the middle. Behind those three young women, Shea played 2048 on her iPhone. In the van following the lead van, Margaux was neither napping nor looking at her phone.

“I saw pretty much everything,” said Margaux. “I remember seeing the red truck coming and thinking, ‘It’s going pretty fast. I hope they slow down.’ It was right as the team van in front was making the left turn and then . . . yeah.”

The Dodge pickup collided with the van carrying the Holy Cross team.

“I put my arm out in front of Hannah and I remember Anne attempting to cover her face and head,” said Maggie. “That’s it. One flash. When I woke up I had oxygen in my nose and I thought maybe we had gone on a run and I had passed out or something because of my bronchitis. I was very confused.”

Shea, in one of the rear rows of the van that was struck, suffered a concussion, but was able to get out of the wreckage.

Grace Rett was riding in the passenger seat of the transport van along with her teammates and coach when the crash occured.
Grace Rett was riding in the passenger seat of the transport van along with her teammates and coach when the crash occured.COREY ARWOOD/TCPalm.com via AP

“I was just trying to help my teammates,” she recalled. “I remember the EMT guy coming over and saying, ‘Your friend Grace isn’t doing well.’ I think I was the only one who processed it. I started to ask about Grace, but he didn’t answer. I didn’t have my phone anymore; it had flown out of my hand. We went to the hospital and were all getting X-rays. I knew the bad news was going to come out soon, but I didn’t want to be the one to say it. A cop drove some of us back to Vero and one of the girls looked at her phone and saw news about the Holy Cross accident and one fatality. All the girls started screaming and the cop pulled over. When we got back to the Jackie Robinson place, I told the girls that Grace was dead.

“Those umpires were around then and I’ve always wondered what they were thinking when that happened.”

Dr. Jason Moore, a trauma surgeon at Lawnwood Regional Medical Center in Fort Pierce, where the Holy Cross victims were treated, told reporters, “This is the most significant number of patients I have encountered who are in such a serious condition at one time.”

Read more: Rowing teams share a special bond, and at Holy Cross, they’ll share an awful grief

There were brain injuries, fractured pelvises, femurs, and tailbones, abdominal wounds, collapsed lungs, broken ribs, concussions, hearing losses, and more. Hannah lapsed into a coma and was at Spaulding Rehab in Charlestown for 100 days. All three team members in the second row of the first van endured lengthy hospital stays and multiple surgeries, and are still dealing with the aftereffects.

Diggins, a Holy Cross grad and parent of Holy Cross graduates, retired one month after the crash. He had been cited by Vero Beach police for failing to yield to oncoming traffic. Maggie O’Leary filed a lawsuit against the college and the coach, but voluntarily dismissed it May 29. Ronald Wolf, the Florida resident and driver of the Dodge pickup, filed a lawsuit against the college and that case is pending. Holy Cross is in settlement discussions with several families of its injured athletes.

“The College generally does not comment on ongoing litigation,” said Holy Cross director of communications John Hill.

“I’ve spoken to Coach Diggins a couple of times,” said Holy Cross athletic director Marcus Blossom. “He was a coach here for a long, long time and he’s a Crusader. It’s a tough ending. I hope to still have a relationship with Coach Diggins in some capacity.”

Team members stopped hearing from Diggins shortly after the accident.

“He was contacting some of us, but I don’t think he’s allowed to contact us anymore,” said Shea.

Grace’s dad said the Rett family was contacted by Diggins in the weeks following the accident, but there has not been contact in several months. Regarding Diggins’s plight, Chris Rett sighed and said, “That would be the hardest position to be in. That would be really tough.”

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Memories are indelible and some of the young rowers may never fully recover from injuries sustained in the crash. Yet they remain full of hope . . . and the spirit and leadership of Grace.

Maggie, Anne, and Hannah, all still recovering, plan to live in an apartment off campus when classes resume this spring so Hannah’s mom can visit her daughter in the event of a COVID-19-related lockdown.

Cheered on by family, friends, physical therapists, and residents of Marion, Hannah was able to run a mile from her Tabor Academy alma mater to the beach last Sunday. She plans to resume studies at Holy Cross next semester, and hopes to return to rowing next season. Like Anne and Maggie, she won’t be 100 percent for this weekend’s fund-raiser, but they all signed up for shifts.

‘I’ve never met someone who was as passionate about rowing as Grace. She ate, slept, and lived rowing. She was a great friend and she was always there for me when no one else was.’

Hannah Strom

“I don’t have an ERG [indoor rowing machine] at my house, but I’m going to have a conversion chart and maybe run on the treadmill,” said Hannah.

“I’ve never met someone who was as passionate about rowing as Grace,” Hannah continued. “She ate, slept, and lived rowing. She was a great friend and she was always there for me when no one else was. If I had to eat or study alone or make a trip downtown to Worcester, she was always there for me.”

Now they are there for Grace. And soon there will be a new gym where once there was nothing.

Chris and Mary Jo Rett could never have envisioned this 20 years ago when they named their baby girl at Milford Hospital.

“Grace was just a name we liked," said the proud dad. “It’s turning out to be perfect."

For information regarding the fund-raiser and the G.R.A.C.E. Center, please visit www.gracetothefinish.com

Grace Rett's parents, Mary Jo and Chris, are raising money to fulfill their daughter's wish.
Grace Rett's parents, Mary Jo and Chris, are raising money to fulfill their daughter's wish.Rett family

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at daniel.shaughnessy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dan_shaughnessy.