Special Niche

Jenny Graap coaching

Based on community, Jenny Graap ’86 has built a dominating Big Red lacrosse program

One thing Jenny Graap FSAD ’86, loved about her time as an undergrad in the College of Human Ecology was the opportunity to make connections. At a big university like Cornell, Graap felt like she found “a special niche, an ability to connect on a smaller, more intimate level.”

She has worked to create this same feeling as the head coach of Cornell’s Women’s Lacrosse team. “I want our lacrosse program to also present that small family atmosphere, where people are caring for and looking out for each other,” she said. She sought to create a program where students, coaches and staff are all “paying attention to and inspiring one another.”

Graap has spent the past 21 years building the Cornell community, and has tallied 200 wins as Cornell’s head coach along the way.

As an undergrad, Graap studied apparel and textile design while also captaining the varsity women’s field hockey and lacrosse teams. She went on to work at Bloomingdale’s in New York City, where she also took classes on sports marketing. After a few years there, Graap realized that she missed being deeply involved in athletics and began to shift her attention toward coaching.

She headed to Penn State, where she earned her master’s degree in exercise and sports science while assistant coaching the Nittany Lions women’s lacrosse team. This led to four years as head coach of women’s lacrosse at George Mason University. In 1997, the head coaching position opened up at Cornell. Intrigued by the idea of working at her alma mater, Graap made the decision to return to Ithaca.

In the early 2000s, Graap enjoyed the opportunity to work with the fashion label DKNY to design Cornell’s lacrosse uniforms, which the team wore in their NCAA Final Four tournament. Though coaching and apparel design might not often overlap, this was an example of Graap’s experiences and expertise intersecting. “I want the athletes at Cornell to have the best of everything,” she said. “The best facilities, the best university, the best education. I want them to feel proud of their Big Red experience.” And Graap is constantly working to make that happen.

From the Olympic level to the college level, women’s sports often receive less attention and resources than men’s. It is an ongoing challenge, but one that is universal. In working to keep her program competitive, Graap never stops championing it.

“It’s part of the reason why the job stays relevant and exciting to me,” Graap said. “The landscape is always adjusting; the rules of the game are constantly changing…there’s so much innovation.” Whether it’s dealing with changes in safety gear, goggles and helmets or encouraging young women to build and believe in their own athletic abilities, Graap focuses on what her athletes need to succeed.

When she was a student herself, Graap knew she wanted a career that allowed her to influence people’s lives. She has found that work as a thoughtful and dedicated coach. “As I grow older, I hope that my experience continues to be helpful and empowering to my athletes,” she said.

If the past 21 years heading the women’s lacrosse program is any indication, Graap has nothing to worry about.