Grace Connolly inspires a new generation of female athletes

Fifth-year senior Grace Connolly is a versatile athlete. Originally on the path to play D1 lacrosse, Connolly instead came to Stanford to pursue running. But Connolly’s interests lie beyond the track. 

In 2021, former beach volleyball player Charlie Ekstrom started a new coalition called Cardinal Community, a philanthropic organization connecting Stanford student-athletes to service opportunities in the surrounding community. In 2022, Ekstrom invited Connolly to be co-president, and they restructured and grew the organization together. 

Last fall, Cardinal Community launched “Reverse Trick or Tree-t” where Stanford student-athletes presented to local schools on topics related to health and nutrition. In the winter, more than 50 families attended the Stanford track for Cardinal Community’s “A, B, Trees” event which offered reading activities, games, and a sports celebration.

“[By] using my platform as a student-athlete, I learned skills that not everyone learns right away — time management, organization, and just the want to learn and achieve things,” Connolly said. “I was always so grateful to have [support] but also very much recognized that people within my own school and in my community didn’t have that same ability.”

This quarter, Cardinal Community will partner with Habitat for Humanity for “Habitat for Humani-Tree,” working onsite to support construction projects in the area.

Connolly and her new co-president, former Stanford football player Max Kalny, are excited about their progress and committed to connecting their 30 active members to sustainable service initiatives. Cardinal Community is currently working on partnering with Student-Athletes for Sustainability on their Athlete Dining Waste project. 

Kalny was introduced to Cardinal Community after he and a few of his teammates volunteered at a local food kitchen when Covid-19 restrictions were lifted. Inspired to do more, Kalny joined Cardinal Community and was quickly onboarded as their Spring Director his junior year, creating their Habitat for Humani-Tree project. 

“I think there’s a lot of people on this campus that want to serve but don’t know how to serve,” Kalny said.  “ I’m an engineer, and I found that Habitat for Humanity was an area I could use my skills and use those to do something better and give back in a way I can do so the best. There’s a lot of people especially in athletics [at Stanford] who are very similar that have certain skills and they want to give back in the best way possible,” Kalny said. 

According to Kalny, Connolly has not only made an impact on the athletic service community, but pushed him personally to become a better leader. 

“She has guided me as a co-president and taught me what it means to lead a community service organization, but also ensures that it’s inviting and everyone is there because they enjoy community service,” Kalny said.  

Amelia Everett, a teammate and freshman on the Cross Country team, expressed deep admiration for Connolly’s commitment to her athletic and broader Stanford communities. 

“[Connolly] has a ton of enthusiasm and passion in everything she does. She runs 70 miles per week, organizes team lunches to help us bond, is co-president of Cardinal Community, and more. It’s super impressive,” Everett said. 

Beginning in college, in addition to her efforts with Cardinal Community, Connolly spent time working with Strong Girls United, a national nonprofit organization, on a mission to empower young female athletes to thrive within and beyond their sport. Drawing from personal experience, Connolly created a genuine connection with her mentee, developing exercise plans and helpful mindfulness activities to facilitate a healthy relationship with her sport. Through this opportunity for mentorship, Connolly has grown a deep appreciation for life at Stanford. 

“Sometimes you forget that you are a Stanford student-athlete and even just being a student here, you’re at the top of your class. So many people would die to be in our position, and I think that sometimes it can be easy to forget that,” Connolly said. “I certainly do sometimes. The moments that really make me step back are when I realize ‘Wow, [my mentee] is absorbing every single word that I’m saying,’ and it is really just very special to think about the impact that you can have on such a small and large scale.”

Throughout her time on the Farm, Connolly has noticed the little boys and girls with wide eyes and beaming admiration at sporting events. She has strived to be what she considers “a bridge” between those who inspire and those who aspire.

“I would go to soccer games and the young girls and guys who go to these games and see [Stanford student-athletes] as stars or like celebrities,” Connolly said. “I think the student-athletes here at Stanford do such an amazing job of engaging the community. It’s very special being surrounded by like-minded individuals who try to elevate sports in general and inspire people.”

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