The toughest coach who ever lived is not Rockne or Lombardi or
The toughest coach who ever lived is skinny as a foul pole, won't
step on spiders and wears pigtails.
The toughest coach who ever lived is a 110-pound wisp, Dawn Anna,
who twice now should've died on the operating table, only to live
through something tenfold worse.
Anna, 49, the girls' volleyball coach for the past seven seasons
at Columbine High, has something in her brain that makes her
world spin every waking hour. A divorced mother of four who has
remarried, she has coached while holding an IV bag in one arm as
it dripped medication into the other. She has coached when she
couldn't feel half her face, when the gym went black, when she
felt like throwing up. But those weren't the tough days.
The tough days started on April 20. That's when she found out
that last year's captain, Lauren Townsend, the school's 4.0
valedictorian, had been murdered while studying in the school
library. Lauren was Dawn's youngest child.
"You know, I always told my kids to be careful crossing the
street, and I told them to be careful riding their bikes," says
Dawn, "but I never thought to tell them to be careful studying in
That Dawn even had Lauren pretty much broke the bookmakers. Two
times during the pregnancy doctors told Dawn they feared she had
miscarried. In the delivery room they said extensive
hemorrhaging should've killed her and her baby. Didn't. A year
later Dawn was teaching Lauren to walk, urging her on, arms wide
In 1993 Dawn's world started rolling like a fun house barrel.
Doctors found a jumbled mass of blood vessels in her cerebellum.
During a preoperative procedure her carotid artery was
inadvertently cut, and Dawn could see blood pooling fast on her
shoulder. The doctors said she could've died. Didn't. As part of
her recovery from brain surgery, Dawn had to learn to walk
again. This time, Lauren taught her, urging her on, arms wide
Even though the dizziness remained, Dawn went on to become one
of the better volleyball coaches in the state. Four years ago
Columbine won its first girls' volleyball conference
championship in 20 seasons. After that, with Lauren as their
best blocker, the Rebels didn't finish below fourth in the
Last summer, just before Lauren's senior season, doctors cut
Dawn open, hipbone to hipbone, to remove ovarian cysts. That
should've stopped her. Didn't. Two months before she was
supposed to start coaching again, she was coaching again.
Columbine didn't win it all last season, but Dawn's players got
the award for the highest combined GPA of all 5A girls
volleyball teams in the state: 3.89. "I kept coaching because I
wanted to be with Lauren," Dawn says. Yeah, well, who didn't?
Lauren was everybody's friend. Honors Society. Worked daily at a
small-animal hospital, even on Christmas and Easter.
Then came that morning in April: Lauren and her friends sitting
at the front table in the library, explosions shaking them,
Lauren saying, "This is a wicked senior prank," finding out how
wicked it really was, hiding under the table but not nearly well
enough and taking 11 bullets from both gunmen. This was the jock
the shooters wanted?
This week Columbine started practicing under a new coach and a
new captain. After last season Dawn had decided to quit to help
Lauren during her first year at Colorado State. This was the
week she was going to move Lauren into her dorm. Instead, Dawn,
tougher than a Woolworth steak, is finding new ways to cope.
"It's life," she says, red-eyed. "It's not supposed to be
smooth. Everything bad that's happened has always had something
good come out of it. It's just, with Lauren, we're still trying
to figure out what that is."
Well, how about this?: There are plans to use a memorial fund in
Lauren's name (303-778-7587) for a college scholarship to be
given annually to a Columbine student. And Dawn has dedicated
herself to helping make other people's kids safe in other
libraries. "There're too many guns out there," she says. "Way
Meantime, there's another mass of vessels, this time on Dawn's
brain stem. Maybe it will kill her, but probably it won't. She's
ready either way. "Those first two times, I think God was
preparing me for Lauren's death," she says. "I found out death
is calm and peaceful. That's why I know Lauren didn't suffer."
When the toughest coach finally goes, may she arrive in a place
that sits perfectly still. And may her captain be waiting there,
urging her on, arms wide open.
COLOR PHOTO: DANA FINEMAN/SYGMA
Dawn Anna twice should've died on the operating table, only to
live through something tenfold worse.