Gail Cummings-Danson may not recall exactly how she got into lacrosse, but the lacrosse world is glad she did.
For her many years in, and contribution to, the sport, she was recently featured in the Canadian Lacrosse Foundation’s Lacrosse Legends series. It’s recognition she accepted with characteristic humility.
Cummings-Danson moved to Huntsville with her family in 1975 when she was in grade 3, attending first Huntsville Public School and then Huntsville High.
Huntsville being a big lacrosse town—”It just is what everybody did in Huntsville,” she recalls—she started to play the game too, likely because her brother got involved first.
There were no girls’ teams at the time, so she played boys’ box lacrosse as a Huntsville Hawk. There was just one other girl on her novice team. Her first coach was Barry Webb, and Cummings-Danson says she was fortunate to have a coach who wasn’t of a different mindset—one who didn’t think girls should play the game. It was an attitude she encountered playing hockey when she made the travel team, also coached by Webb, but was told by Ontario minor hockey officials that she wasn’t allowed to play with the boys. A lawsuit ensued.
“He gave me the introduction and the encouragement and the opportunity to succeed,” she says of Webb.
Cummings-Danson was a Hawk from novice through midget levels and had encouraging coaches for the duration. “Lacrosse is so integrated into the culture of Huntsville in and of itself that you knew you were going to get great coaches… I was lucky to grow up in Huntsville and lucky to have the coaches that I had.”
Her teams won provincial championships at the novice, peewee, bantam, and midget levels, as well as Canadian championships in midget.
Her parents supported her love for the game, but her dad wasn’t thrilled when she expressed her desire to play junior lacrosse. To ensure she could continue to play the game she loved, her dad discovered there was a women’s field lacrosse program in Toronto, and her parents drove her to the city every summer weekend for practices.
Cummings-Danson broke into the national team program at an early age, while still in high school—she was in the right place at the right time, she says—and played in three world championships for Canada and later one for the US. She also received a lacrosse scholarship for Temple University in Philadelphia, scoring an NCAA record 289 goals during her career there and earning an NCAA championship in 1988.
She was inducted into the Huntsville Sports Hall of Fame in 1990, the Ontario Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 1999 (its first female inductee), the US National Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 2007, and the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 2008.
Despite all of the recognition, she’s always been a team player first, she says. “I have always viewed myself that way. If you’re fortunate enough to earn individual accolades along the way, that’s all nice and good, but it’s about whether or not you’re winning as a team and I take that back to my youth days playing box lacrosse, the championship teams I was on there—just to be part of a team, the life lessons that you learn…”
She wasn’t a great athlete, she insists. Instead it was her work ethic that allowed her to excel. “I never considered myself to be a natural, but because of my parents, they instilled this work ethic in me. If you want to get better, you’ve got to keep working at it, you’ve got to put in extra time, extra effort.”
Cummings-Danson encourages anyone to try the sport, young women in particular. “I think you’ll be hooked immediately, it’s so fantastic. And you can find your niche within the sport without having to be a great athlete. You can just be a really great team member… I would encourage girls to not be intimidated by what they perceive the sport to be until they actually try it.”
She also advises young athletes to take advantage of every opportunity that comes their way. It would have been easy for she or her parents to say they didn’t want their weekends tied up driving to Toronto for lacrosse, or for her to decide that the transition from boys’ box lacrosse to women’s field lacrosse was too hard. “When it’s something that you love, you try to take advantage of every opportunity. You never know when that next opportunity is going to be around the corner. One opportunity leads to another and you don’t know where you are going to end. Don’t be afraid to take those chances even if at first you’re not successful…and don’t let somebody else tell you what your destiny is going to be.”
She retired as a player after the 1993 world cup, and now, as the athletic director at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, she works to make sports fair and equitable for both women and men, aiming to bring opportunities and resources for women in sport up to the same level as what’s available for their male counterparts.
It’s a privilege to play a sport, particularly at a higher level, she notes. “When you actually make a team, it’s a privilege, not a right…be appreciative of the privilege that you’re afforded, because not everybody gets it.”
As for her Lacrosse Legends nod, Cummings-Danson says she’s appreciative that they are celebrating the many players, coaches, and officials who have contributed to the game, and that they thought to include her. She adds with a laugh that it also makes her feel old. “You have to have been around for a long time to be called a legend…”
And she hasn’t forgotten where it all began: in Huntsville. “I never forget my roots…I always considered myself to be from Huntsville,” she says. “It was a great town to grow up in as a kid.”
Don’t miss out on Doppler!
Sign up here to receive our email digest with links to our most recent stories.
Local news in your inbox three times per week!