Adversity. Perseverance. Success

    Governor General Gold Medal recipient and PhD graduate Kacey Neely takes determination and resilience to a whole new level

    By Nicole Graham on June 14, 2017

    Saturday, June 30, 2001 is a day that will always stick out in Kacey Neely’s mind. She was at home in Burlington, Ontario getting ready to head to soccer practice when the phone rang. It was her coach calling to tell her to not come to practice as she was no longer on the team. At 15 years old, after playing on the same team for the past six years, getting cut was truly a devastating moment in this young athlete’s life.

    “I was crushed. I barely left my mom’s side the entire summer. I was a soccer player. My teammates were my best friends. How was I going to move forward without them and a sport I loved so much?”

    Kacey’s love for soccer soon diminished after that day. She tried to play for the B Team that summer, but her heart wasn’t in it and ended up leaving the team on her own terms. She did go on to play on her high school soccer and basketball teams, and eventually tried out for the Wilfrid Laurier varsity soccer team, making it as a walk on, but choosing to leave the team two weeks later. 

    “What if I built my entire university identity around being a soccer player, didn’t make any non-soccer friends, and was eventually cut from the team? I couldn’t go through that same experience again.”

    Kacey looks back at this moment as a key turning point in her life. Her disassociation with soccer led her to turn her focus during the summers to camp counseling at an overnight sport camp. Here she saw further evidence the importance sports play in a child’s life—this time from a positive, life skills development scope. These experiences, along with a fourth-year undergraduate course in sport and children, were the catalysts in bringing the Ontario native to the University of Alberta.

    Kacey’s desire to research positive youth development through sport had her actively seek out one of the leading researchers in this area, Dr. Nick Holt. After agreeing to take her on as a Masters student, Kacey joined Dr. Holt’s team at the Child and Adolescent Sport and Activity Lab in the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation.

    Kacey’s MA research focused primarily on how the parents of young children perceived positive youth development through participation in organized sport.  During this time, Kacey and Dr. Holt developed an after-school sports and life skills program for inner-city school kids called Try Sport, where they applied findings from Kacey’s research into practice with local youth.

    With the sting of getting cut from her soccer team still in the back of her mind, Kacey focused her PhD research on gaining a better understanding of deselection in competitive female youth sport by examining the experiences of athletes, coaches and parents.  Over the course of her postdoctoral candidacy, Kacey conducted three separate studies examining different aspects of deselection: the first study focused on the coaches’ views of deselecting youth; the second study looked at how athletes and parents cope with deselection; and the third study explored athletes’ experiences of positive growth following deselection. Taken together, the results of all three studies demonstrated the complex and stressful nature of deselection for coaches, athletes and parents. More importantly, the outcomes helped Kacey identify a deselection process and processes of communal coping, making an important contribution to youth sport literature and practice.

    “Kacey's PhD work focused on a very important topic that has received little attention in the literature. Kids get cut from sport teams every season, but there is very little guidance on how to implement deselection protocols or how to support athletes who are cut,” says Dr. Holt, who has even incorporated some of Kacey’s recommendations into his own coaching experiences.  “Kacey's work will inform evidence-based practice in the future that will ease the burden of deselection.”

    The research Kacey has conducted over the years has garnered the attention of the academic community and beyond. The after-school program, Try Sport, caught the eye of a non-governmental organization working with schools in Kenya. They approached Dr. Holt, asking if someone would come to the Mathare Slum in Nairobi to help create a basketball-specific life skills program for the kids in the community. Kacey jumped at the opportunity to take her research half-way across the world and helped to create a program coined Slums Dunk/Hoops for Kids. 

    Kacey playing basketball with students from the Mathare Slum in Nairobi, Kenya.


    “Her work is of exceptionally high quality and she has consistently published in some of the top journals in her area,” Holt boasts. “She has consistently won scholarships and awards throughout her career, including the SSHRC doctoral scholarship and the Isaac Walton Killam Scholarship.”

    To no one’s surprise, the external reviewer of Kacey’s PhD dissertation defense expressed their interest in and praise of her research and thus suggested Kacey be nominated for the University of Alberta’s Governor General Gold Medal Award. What have become the most prestigious awards students in Canadian schools can receive, Governor General Academic Medals recognize academic excellence, with the Gold Medal specifically celebrating the doctoral graduate who achieves the highest academic standing.

    While academic standing plays a key role for this award, so do scholarly achievements. During her seven and a half years as a UAlberta graduate student and PhD candidate, Kacey has actively taken on teaching assistant roles; mentored two undergraduate students who both went on to graduate programs in the Faculty; and filled the role of sport psychology consultant with the Pandas Hockey team, where she worked closely with head coach Howie Draper on developing mental skills with the athletes. She also ran a shoe-drive within the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation prior to her trip to Kenya, collecting over a hundred pairs of shoes to give as a gift upon her arrival in Nairobi. This gesture made an immediate impact on the coaches, teachers and students in the Mathare Slum, setting the tone for a successful trip.

    Leaving a positive impression is something Kacey does naturally. Her intelligence, determination, kindness and optimism inspire everyone she meets and has earned her the respect of supervisors, peers and colleagues.

    “Kacey's strength lied in the tremendous compassion that she held for our players,” explains Draper.  “She shared each and every experience right alongside each member of our team, and, in doing so, gained a high degree of trust and respect from us all.  I was amazed at the amount of time that she was able to spend with us despite her academic commitments and, particularly, the challenges with her health. No matter what was going on in her life, she always made time for me and the team.  She is the quintessential team player!”

    A type one diabetic, Kacey has been dealing with the side effects of the disease for most of her life. This all came to a head when, in January 2013, she was told by her doctor that she was going into kidney failure and would need to undergo a transplant. An hour later, the then 26 year old had a meeting scheduled with Dr. Holt and her supervisory committee to go over her PhD research proposal, which was the deciding factor on whether she was going to commit to a four plus year doctoral candidacy program; not an easy feat, but Kacey wasn’t doing to be deterred.


    “I just had to suck it up and go into the meeting pretending like I didn’t just hear the worst news I’ve ever heard.” —Kacey Neely


    Once her proposal was accepted, she told Dr. Holt the news about her health, but was firm this was not to affect her PhD candidacy. “I told him, ‘I don’t want you to treat me any differently. I don’t want you to lower your expectations for me.’”
    Kacey approached her kidney failure and subsequent transplant much like she approached her work; with a solid plan supplemented with unwavering determination and optimism. She also tried to ensure her declining health wouldn’t interfere with her research. In fact, when Kacey went to Kenya, she was in end-stage kidney failure, but wasn’t going to let this get in her way.

    “I looked at it like this: I knew my mom was going to be my kidney donor. Yes, my kidneys were failing, but the transplant wasn’t going to be taking place right away.  It wasn’t like if I stayed home, my kidneys weren’t going to keep failing. This was an once-in-a-lifetime chance and I was going to take it.”

    Kacey underwent the transplant in October 2015. Never taking an extended leave during this time, she channeled a lot of the qualities that so many people admire in her to help her through the surgery, recovery and setbacks. For instance, during the rehabilitation process post-surgery, Kacey used a lot of the mental skills she taught the Pandas athletes.
    “It was difficult, with the placement of the incision, to walk for the prescribed 30 minutes on the treadmill. I did a lot of positive self-talk, setting five-minute goals at the time to get through those 30 minutes.”

    And, during her most recent setback, she tapped into that unwavering optimism once more.

    “I looked at what I had—my mom and sisters flew in to be with me, my friends and colleagues coming to visit constantly—and I just couldn’t help but feel so very lucky to have such strong support. Some people have no one. I really kept reminding myself that it could always be worse than what it is now, and to be grateful for the people in my life.”

    Throughout the surgery, recovery and several setbacks that can happen for transplant patients, Kacey kept her eye on the prize; graduating with a doctoral degree. Focusing on her dissertation, being around so many people she cared for, and being involved in research she felt so passionately about drove her to where she is today.

    Today—Wednesday, June 14, 2017—Kacey Neely will be walking across the stage, to not only collect her doctoral degree, but  to accept the University of Alberta 2017 Spring Convocation Governor General Gold Medal Award; something Kacey feels is the cherry on the top of what has been an incredible graduate and doctoral experience.
    “I am honoured the University of Alberta would recognize me with such a prestigious award. I am extremely proud of my research and what I have been able to accomplish during my time here. Receiving the Governor General Gold Medal award is simply the perfect way to end such an influential time of my life.”

    Her passion of conducting research that have practical outcomes and will directly make a positive impact for youth in sport is something that Dr. Holt feels will create a bright future for Kacey.

    “She is an excellent young scholar and I am sure she will go on to a flourishing career where she will continue to leave a lasting impression on everyone she encounters.”