Sister's strength provides solace year after Freeport grad's suicide
Danika Durand won four awards, including two scholarships, during a student recognition ceremony in the Freeport High School auditorium on the night of June 4.
In a bittersweet way, one of the honors reminded her of what she lost.
Durand, a 2013 Freeport graduate, stood on the auditorium stage and smiled as one of two recipients of the inaugural Derek Durand Student-Athlete Memorial Scholarship, created in memory of Danika's brother, a 2011 Freeport grad who committed suicide June 13, 2012. Classmate and close friend Brendan Lynch was the other winner.
“She definitely deserved it, probably more than anyone else did,” said Lynch, a standout in football, basketball and track. “We used to joke with Derek that Danika was just the girl version of him and that he was the boy version of her, because they're just so similar.”
For Durand, the recognition added to a year-long stretch in which she came to terms with her brother's death and gave family members, friends and teammates from volleyball, cheerleading and track a reason to believe in the resilience of the human spirit.
“It touched a special place in my heart knowing that (the award) was for my brother,” said Durand, a three-time letterman in volleyball, a four-time letterman in track and a gymnast in the winter. “I just know that he wouldn't want me to be upset.
“I feel like this situation has matured me so much. I knew how I had to be to make sure that everything is OK — and it's not OK, but everyone is still standing. It was kind of like a switch turned on, and I had to be a certain way.”
Four days after her brother ended his life by jumping from the Route 28 bridge that spans Buffalo Creek, Durand stood inside Saxonburg Memorial Presbyterian Church and spoke about the sibling she considered a confidant and an inspiration. Never before had Durand attended a funeral for kin, yet she maintained her poise and withstood the urge to cry as she eulogized and then read a poem, “Broken Chain,” written by Ron Tranmer.
“I was a wreck that day, and for her to get up there was so inspiring to me,” said Lynsey Gugino, a 2012 Freeport graduate and one of Durand's closest friends. “Both my family and I were so impressed that she went up there and spoke to the community in such a positive way.”
“She seems to be very strong, very driven,” Durand's father, Todd, said. “We want to make sure we do everything we can for her to help her through what we're all going through. … It's remarkable that she's done as well as she's done in everything.”
She has possessed an unbreakable spirit since her earliest years, her parents said. Her brother deserved some credit for that trait.
“He never treated her like a girl — or even like someone younger,” Durand's mother, Mindy, said. “He expected her to keep up with everybody. If they were playing a sport with his friends, (he expected) she should be able to do just as much as the other boys. And I think that made her more competitive, since she was always trying to hang in there with the big boys.”
Durand followed her brother down most sports avenues. He tried soccer, so she did the same. The patterned continued with basketball.
She even pondered football for a time, but realistic about her diminutive stature, she chose volleyball in seventh grade.
This past fall, volleyball provided Durand a welcome diversion. She had spent the past several months dealing with her brother's death and recovering from a severe ankle injury suffered late in the track season that left her with a blood-blistered, swollen green-and-yellow lower left leg for months — Derek had served as her informal caretaker through late May and early June.
Durand relished the camaraderie of the volleyball team, which claimed an eighth consecutive section title and reached the WPIAL Class AA quarterfinals. They filled the sibling void.
“It's more of a family than any other sport I play, because you're together all the time,” said Durand, a right-side hitter.
“She's so strong,” said teammate and 2013 graduate Lauren Frazetta. “I know there are times of weakness, but she knows her brother is there with her in spirit.”
Concerned about her ankle's health, Durand replaced gymnastics with competitive cheerleading as her winter activity. And in the spring, she focused on long jumping rather than hurdling — her brother excelled in both events but prioritized hurdling.
“That's kind of how everything went — anything he would do, I would do,” said Durand, who started jumping for distance late in her sophomore year. “I tried (long jumping), and I liked it, but I wasn't very good at first.”
On May 16 at Baldwin High School, the girl with the modest start as a long jumper left the WPIAL Class AA track and field championships with a silver medal in the event and a spot in the PIAA championships. Her distance, 16 feet, 11 inches, was a personal best and missed the girls school record by four inches.
Had she claimed the record, Durand would've joined her brother, who holds Freeport's boys long jump record (22-8).
Durand always admired her brother's athletic gifts. Derek became the Valley News Dispatch's Athlete of the Year in 2011 after standout seasons in football, basketball and track. He started part-time as a freshman wide receiver at Slippery Rock.
In the fall, Durand will head to Slippery Rock, which first became an option for her two years ago because she wanted to watch her brother play football — Todd Durand, the father of the family, also played football there. Durand said she finds the familiarity with the campus comforting.
For her latest athletic nod to her brother, she will join the cheerleading team.
“It tugs on your heartstrings a little bit, and it's hard knowing that,” Durand said of cheering for Slippery Rock without Derek. “It's also the reason that I wanted to cheer.
“Those guys that are there, they've been friends to me since before this happened, and now they're like family to me. … Obviously I'd love for (Derek) to be there, but it makes me feel closer to him that I am cheering for the football team.”