One year after horrific hot air balloon accident, Richmond struggles to move on

Courtesy the Lewis family

If this is the first time you’re reading about Ginny Doyle and Natalie Lewis, key players on the University of Richmond women’s basketball team who were killed a year ago in a nightmare hot air balloon accident, go ahead and type their names into a search engine. Take a look at the breathless news stories that recount what happened to them on May 9, 2014.

Doyle, 44, who was in her 15th year as an assistant coach, and Lewis, 24, a champion swimmer who was captain two of her four years with the Spiders and later became the women’s basketball operations director — died in an accident head coach Michael Shafer will never comprehend.

“Trying to make sense of it is just a moot point. I can’t do it,” says Shafer, who just finished his 10th season with Richmond. “I live with it, literally, every day.”

(Courtesy the Lewis family)
“You expected her to live to 100 and have 16 grandchildren,” Trish Lewis says of her daughter Natalie. (Courtesy the Lewis family)

Each day has its routine. Wake up. Coffee. Breakfast. The same roads to campus. Find a parking spot. Walk to the office. Those autopilot moments are the worst for Shafer, because his mind has a way of turning back the clock. He walks into his office expecting a brilliant smile and kind comment from Lewis, who was known for baking cookies and offering encouragement to everyone she met.

But she’s not there anymore.

His recruiting updates no longer come from Doyle, a former star player at the university who regularly spent her evening hours on the phone with prized recruits on both coasts. She would develop relationships with hundreds of high school players, just to get a couple to decide on Richmond each year.

“It’s a lot of rolling emotion,” Shafer says. “Whenever I’ve got time to think, it hits. Idle time is a problem.”

Trish Lewis thinks about her daughter every day, and uses the example Natalie set to try to be a better person.

Photo courtesy Genevieve Okoro/University of Richmond
Courtesy Genevieve Okoro/University of Richmond

“She took such good care of herself and such good care of other people, you expected her to live to 100 and have 16 grandchildren,” she says. “Now our job is to keep the momentum of Natalie’s life going. You were brought to you knees when the best thing in your life was taken from you, and now we all think of things differently. How do we want to be remembered?”

Trish Lewis runs to the door of her local church, St. Rose of Lima on tree-lined Parker Avenue in Buffalo every morning, because the time she spends there makes her feel connected to her daughter. “I don’t mean to sound too religious,” she says. “But you realize how close heaven is to us. There is just a very thin line.”

After almost 20 years of making the drive to Richmond from New Jersey, Spiders basketball was part of the Doyle family routine. Few people can imagine anticipating a six-hour winter time drive down Interstate 95, but Joe Doyle always did. The miles flew past because at the end of the road came a chance to see his younger sister, Ginny, on the sideline. And he and his mother, also named Ginny, continued to make it this year, even though the family favorite was no longer there.

“We have no problem making the drive down to Richmond, watching the game and driving six hours back. My mom lived with my sister, every basketball season, took care of her,” says Joe Doyle. “And my mom and I are still interested in supporting the team. They’re like family, all the girls on the team, as well as their families. When we’re at the games we just feel Ginny’s spirit there. She loved Richmond. She had opportunities to leave, but always stayed because it was her alma mater, she broke records there. There are just so many memories of Ginny at the Robins Center.”

Ginny Doyle shouts encouragement over head coach Michael Shafer during the 2014 Atlantic 10 tournament. (Courtesy Richmond Athletics)
Ginny Doyle shouts encouragement over Michael Shafer during the 2014 Atlantic 10 tournament. (Courtesy Richmond Athletics)

Lewis and Doyle, along with pilot Daniel Kirk, were killed when the hot air balloon they were riding in hit power lines, causing a spark that ignited the basket they were riding in, along with the balloon envelope.

A year has passed and Richmond and the other schools they attended are planning to honor the women with memorials and scholarships. But each year, fewer Richmond players will have been recruited by Doyle or eaten a cookie baked by Lewis. Their influence will become less memory, and more legacy — embodied by a financial aid award or as a name on a memorial wall. But for one season, at least, the Spiders used their fresh memories of Doyle and Lewis on the court, every night, and honored them with a season to be proud

Honoring the memory of a daughter, sister, friend, colleague and coach isn’t always easy. A patch stitched onto a warm-up jacket, or stenciled onto a football helmet can turn out to be suffocating instead of liberating. But somehow the Spiders pushed forward into the 2014-15 season with all of those swirling emotions — loneliness, anger, disbelief — and came out on the other side with a season to be proud of: a 19-14 record (9-7 Atlantic-10); a season-opening win streak over Providence, Georgetown and Longwood; a five-game streak heading into 2015 and a pair of postseason wins — one in the A-10 tournament and one in the Women’s NIT.

“We weren’t very good the year before (14-16), and Ginny was in these meetings we had [last spring]. We really challenged our kids to change their mentality, to be more committed, locked in a little bit more,” says Shafer. “When [the accident] happened, everyone galvanized as a team. Now there was a unique bond – not one we ever wanted, but a bond — and we did a really good job of using it. … We lost a lot of close games. The hardest part, I think, is that it wasn’t the fairytale. It wasn’t the ‘end of a movie’ season, but I certainly believe it was a success.”

Olivia Healy, a sophomore point guard from Massachusetts who considers Doyle’s influence as one of the key reasons she chose to attend Richmond, says Shafer showed more love and compassion after the accident than he had before. It sounds simple, but it was an effective change.

“Practices were really positive. We had already experienced all the grieving, so practice was just a great time. We got to get away from all the negatives in the world and do something we loved,” says Healy. “I think that’s why we were able to have a great season. I can’t say that I’ve ever had a more fun season than I did this last year.”

And Shafer is the first to admit he became more approachable.

“I was probably a lot more empathetic,” he says. “I love our players, but I told them that so many more times than I had in the past. I needed to share that with them because I really don’t know when it’s going to be the last time.”

Memorial and scholarship funds

  • University of Richmond: Memorial funds honoring Natalie Lewis and Ginny Doyle. Donations also can be mailed to:
    The University of Richmond
    Spider Club
    28 Westhampton Way
    Robins Center
    Richmond, VA 23173
    Make checks payable to the University of Richmond and indicate Ginny Doyle or Natalie Lewis memorial fund.
  • Nardin Academy (Buffalo, N.Y.): Scholarship fund honoring Natalie Lewis.
  •  Natalie Lewis Spring Invitational: Swim meet May 15-17 in Buffalo, N.Y.


Dan Friedell

Dan Friedell is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.