Feb. 27, 2009
Family has always been the source of Sara Salam's strength. She and her sister, Sabrina, became stand-out field hockey players in their native Germany thanks to years taking the field with brother Sikandar, five years Sara's senior, and his friends. Later, seeing Sabrina succeed in the United States at the University of Maryland helped convince Sara that she could take on that challenge as well.
So it should come as no surprise that now, almost four years after Sabrina's life ended tragically in a car accident, Sara is looking to share the strength and inspiration of her sister with her other family, the Maryland field hockey program.
Sabrina Salam was a two-time All-American during her playing days at Maryland, leading the Terps to their second national championship in 1993. Graduating as the program's all-time assists leader, Sabrina remained at Maryland after earning her degree to pursue a Ph.D., earning it the same day Sara completed her undergraduate studies.
Her academic career complete, Sabrina devoted her life to various aspects of health care for Monitor Company, first in Frankfort, Germany and later in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her work designing a competency modeling approach for the European division of the company was praised by the division vice president as "the most innovative and revolutionary in the company to date."
With her older sister earning national recognition for her play on the field and continuing to impress with her dedication off it, Sara Salam knew that the comparisons would be unavoidable if she, too, crossed an ocean to attend Maryland. More than that, though, Sara would have to see for herself just how tough the everyday adjustments would be.
The decision to study somewhere in the U.S. seemed to come naturally enough, Sara remembered, but there was one major obstacle before ever leaving Germany. "My decision came a couple of weeks after I decided I wasn't going to continue my English classes," Sara said with a laugh. "My mother told me, `You know, you're going to have to speak English over there,' and I realized she was right about that."
Despite her sister's notoriety, Sara chose to follow Sabrina to Maryland. "I wanted to see if I could do it on my own," Sara said. "My fear was that with Sabrina at Maryland, I wouldn't really do it on my own - again. I'd just be following my sister's footsteps. But in the end, our family is really close so I decided to go to Maryland."
Once on campus, Sara had to balance life as a field hockey and tennis player with her academic work - all while learning a new language and adjusting to American culture. Finding it necessary to tape and translate her lectures before doing her homework and translating it back into English, she remembered a typical night allowing her just three or four hours of sleep.
Furthermore, keeping in touch with her tight-knit family proved difficult. "Keep in mind that this was before e-mail," she said. "It was just little things - like finding a mailbox. They're all yellow in Germany - I didn't know to look for a blue one!"
Even at the beginning, when Sara was not certain that she would be able to create her own identity at Maryland, her sister Sabrina was confident.
"In the beginning, people always referred to me as `Sabrina's sister,'" Sara recalled. "But I remember a moment on graduation day, when we were lined up ready to go in. Sabrina was with me and I introduced her to a friend of mine who said to her, `Oh, you're Sara's sister!' Sabrina knew exactly what that meant, and she gave me a look as if to say `I told you so.' Even when I couldn't see it, she could."
Today, Sabrina is remembered as a genuine person, always having time to help others - family or not - and always recognizing the best in those around her. Her impact has led to the formation of two awards in her honor. The Monitor Company established "The Sabrina Award," a yearly prize involving a rigorous nomination and interview process in an effort to find the person most emulating Sabrina's traits of Energy and Motivation, Teamwork, Coaching, Optimism, Perseverance and Humility.
At Maryland, Sabrina is remembered as well. Established after her death in 2005 by Missy Meharg, the award stands for a Championship Lifestyle. The player who qualifies for the award is an accomplished student-athlete who has an unmatched work rate and exemplifies an elite quality of life academically, socially, athletically and spiritually.
After the Terrapins' National Championship run in 2008, Sara Salam was invited to deliver an address and help present her sister's award at the year-ending team banquet. "I have always been following what's going on with the team," the 1997 graduate remembered. "Sabrina was really active and supportive after she graduated. I really re-established contact again when my sister died, though. And even then, I didn't think I had the heart to talk about Sabrina until this year."
The senior class of 2008 was the most successful in the history of Maryland field hockey, winning three national titles and two ACC titles in their four years. More importantly to Sara, though, the class holds a special place in her heart because they were freshmen in 2005 when, after the death of Sabrina, Coach Meharg arranged for the entire team to wear patches in her memory for the remainder of that title season. The patches simply had the number 11, Sabrina's number on the field.
"The number 11 is very dear to our family," Sara explained. "It was the number my brother wore, so when Sabrina came to Maryland, she chose it. And when I followed her, I wore it as well. It means a lot to us."
Appropriately, this year's Sabrina Salam winner was senior Danielle Keeley who, as the Salams had before, wore number 11 for each of her four years on the field in College Park.
Although the field hockey Class of 2008 is on its way into the real world, Sara is dedicated to maintaining the legacy that Sabrina forged at Maryland. Now a life coach and self defense instructor in Washington, DC, Sara is glad to have had the opportunity to share her story at the banquet, and hopes for more opportunities in the future.
"I love working with student athletes," she said. "I would love to keep the connection with this team in particular. Sabrina and I went through it as international students, but I think it is a common thread that college is a critical point in time - a time to find your way. Being able to listen to who you truly are and be that person - those were the things that inspired Sabrina."