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Suzy Merchant: 2018 ATHENA Leadership Award Recipient

Saturday, December 1, 2018  
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As a basketball coach, Suzy Merchant has enjoyed great success throughout her career. Entering her 12th season as head coach of the MSU women’s basketball program, Merchant has proven to be one of the best coaches in Michigan State history and a force in the Big Ten Conference. Through her first 11 seasons, Merchant has brought the Spartan program to the upper echelon at the Big Ten and national level. The Spartans have finished third or better in the Big Ten in eight of the last 11 seasons, and her conference record of 118-68 (63.4 percent) is in the top-12 career winning percentage in the 34-year history of the Big Ten and is the third-highest percentage among active coaches. The Spartans have won at least 20 games in nine of her 10 seasons. Through her first 11 seasons at MSU, 39 Spartans have earned All-Big Ten recognition and 53 have been named Academic All-Big Ten.

There is no question that Division I college coaches are judged on wins and losses. However, if you ask Suzy Merchant what is the most rewarding part of her job, she’ll tell you it is all about the relationships with the players.

“It is an awesome responsibility to be their second mom and help guide them through some challenging situations and celebrate their successes,” said Merchant. “There are a lot of changes that go on in college between the ages of 18 and 22 and a lot of choices that young people can make. As coaches, our job is to do the best we can to support them and develop them as people.”

Suzy Merchant has been widely lauded for her work as a coach, leader and mentor on and off-the-court and has been recognized for that work by being named the recipient of the 2018 ATHENA Leadership Award, a recognition that caught her by surprise.

“I have certainly appreciated what ATHENA is all about and am truly honored and humbled,” said Merchant.

Suzy is the creator and founder of the empowHER leadership retreat. This is a grassroots initiative aimed at reaching young girls at the right time to give them the skills to take on personal and professional challenges in their lives. Girls in fourth through ninth grades attend the retreat.

The inspiration behind empowHER is a young woman Suzy was recruiting three years ago. April was born on April 28, 1998, in Pittsburgh. Family, friends and teammates have countless memories of how April made them laugh and brightened their day, whether she was clowning around with basketball friends, playing practical jokes on her sisters or spending time with her family. April was an amazing girl with a powerful spirit who, tragically, chose to end her life.

“I was very shaken up about it because I had built a relationship with April and her family and being a mom, I couldn’t even imagine what that was like,” said Merchant. “I could never let it go. I wanted to do something, and I felt I was in a position where if I could help just one girl make a better choice, whether it was academically or socially, I felt I had the calling to do it.”

With Suzy’s vision in hand and with the whole-hearted support of April’s parents Amy and Tim, a small committee of volunteers embarked on launching the first empowHER retreat in 2016. Through the generous support of several organizations and businesses in the community and the time and dedication of the leadership committee working alongside Suzy, the first retreat was a success, hosting 150 girls for a two-day retreat. The following year the committee was able to meet Suzy’s goal to double attendance, and 300 girls participated in the 2017 retreat. In the third year, empowHER welcomed 450 girls, selling out in one week. An important factor for Suzy was to ensure the retreat was affordable to all girls in the community. The registration fee is a mere $25, although the cost to run the event is $200 per attendee. Each year, about 100 girls attend the retreat at no charge. The full cost of the retreat is covered by sponsorships and community grants.

450 girls fifth through ninth grade attended the third annual empowHER leadership retreat in April. Suzy’s vision includes taking the program national.

With support and education in the interactive workshops, empowHER girls embrace their strengths and differences, build their self-confidence and participate in service projects that demonstrate the importance of giving back to their community. Suzy’s vision for the empowHER leadership retreat is to provide attendees the tools to handle life’s challenges, build self-esteem and confidence and create a community of support. Suzy’s goal is to literally save lives. 

“It is a very powerful weekend. I think when you change young girls lives and let them think about things in a different way and for them to know that there are so many other girls that have the same questions and concerns that there is power in numbers,” said Merchant. “When you know you’re not alone you feel that you can get through anything.”

Suzy is quick to credit a large group of community supporters and the event’s organizing committee for the success of empowHER. Kristin St. Marie, formally of the MSU Broad School of Business, has also been a driving force since the beginning.

“Suzy’s vision and passion for this event will have an impact on these young girls’ lives for many years to come,” said St. Marie, now with Carlisle Companies in Scottsdale Arizona. “It is our dream to build this event beyond MSU and the Lansing community and help bring this concept to a national platform.”

Suzy has been generous with her time serving as a keynote speaker and emcee at charitable events.

Suzy’s leadership in the community has also extended to many other charitable endeavors, including as a keynote speaker at numerous events, serving as spokesperson and model for the Hidden Key Fashion Show, being involved with the MSU Children’s Health Initiative and serving as emcee for Sparrow’s Dapper Dads fundraising event. The importance of community service was part of her upbringing, growing up in Traverse City. Suzy’s father was an educator and her mother was also involved in education. Community was always important in their family.

“I am not a product of my environment; I am a product of the people in my environment,” said Merchant. “To have influential people who believed in a bigger and better vision for myself and inspired me every day, I felt it was my responsibility to continue that tradition.”

Suzy likes to say that on her day job she has 15 daughters and when she goes home, it is a house full of boys, husband Gary Rakan and sons Tyler and Brady.

“I am thankful for the opportunity here at Michigan State because my boys are growing up in an environment that teaches a lot of strong values, hard work, determination and team work,” said Merchant. “They’ve grown up cheering for girls and women which is a powerful blessing, for sure.”

Whether it is wins on the basketball court or empowering young people to win in life, Suzy Merchant is building a legacy that will have a lasting impact.

“I believe Suzy has had a tremendous impact on many women (and men) in our community through her speaking engagements, sharing her leadership philosophy, serving as a role model and giving back to others through her volunteerism and community outreach,” said St. Marie. “She is a true treasure for MSU and the greater Lansing community.”

To me it has always been about the relationships with the players. It is about building relationships and the Spartan family that is so strong and so connected and so united,” said Merchant. “It doesn’t matter how many years go by, this is home to them. I want the players to know that during their time here, it wasn’t just about basketball that they were honored, they were appreciate and they were valued.”

Suzy Merchant was honored with the ATHENA Leadership Award at the annual ATHENA Awards luncheon on Thursday, December 6 at the MSU Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center.

Click here to download the December edition of FOCUS.

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