Points and Rebounds
Coach and mentor Chummy Gill teaches kids to shoot for success—in life.
Chantal Gill grew up with five older brothers and half-brothers. Her brother Cecil should have known better than to tell her that she “would never, ever be able to score a basket on him.” A sixth-grader at the time, she was already volunteering as a camp assistant for Arlington Parks and Rec, and she practically lived at Gunston Community Center, playing pick-up hoops every chance she got. Now she had a mission.
“With my competitive [nature] I got from my brothers, it just didn’t [sit] well,” says Gill, who goes by her middle name, “Chummy,” smiling broadly.
She finally scored on Cecil three years later in a game of one-on-one at Gunston. By then, she was a freshman at Wakefield High School. He was on a visit home from his freshman year at Santa Clara University in California.
“It was pretty exciting and he was proud,” says Gill, who was born in Guyana and moved to the U.S. with her mom when she was 8. “I’m a 100 percent kind of person…110 percent, actually.”
Indeed. As a point guard for the Wakefield Warriors, Gill in 1990 led a team that had suffered several winless seasons all the way to the district championships. (Just last year, her No. 10 jersey was retired in a special halftime ceremony during a Warriors game.)
She went on to play for Guyana’s women’s national basketball team, which shocked the Caribbean world in 1996 with its underdog win at the Caricom (Caribbean Community) Games. Making long distance trips to and from Arlington, she continued to play for, and then coach, the Guyana team for eight years.
But those years brought tragedy as well as triumph. When her older cousin was killed unexpectedly, Gill was shaken. She postponed her freshman year at Virginia State and took a job at the American Security Bank (now Bank of America) in D.C., where her mother, Shirley Gill, was a vice president. Three years later, she found her mom dead of a heart attack.
Three years after that, her brother Cidel was diagnosed with cancer at 33. Interrupting college once again, she cared for him for two years until he passed away. “I just saw my life always being a very interesting storybook,” Gill says.
During that time, Gill landed a coaching job at Yorktown High School. She also joined forces with her half-sister, Cindy Johnson, to help co-found Arlington Pride, an AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) elite basketball program for area teens. (A star in her own right, Johnson had played for the University of Delaware and was named Delaware’s NCAA “Woman of the Year” in 2001.)
Those contributions ultimately led Gill to receive a trio of awards in 2007—“Northern Virginia Regional Coach of the Year,” “National District Coach of the Year” and “Arlington County Coach of the Year”—just as the Yorktown girls’ varsity basketball team celebrated a winning season.
But Gill’s former players note that her emphasis was never just on winning. “If I didn’t have Chummy as a coach, I would be a completely different person,” says Michelle McKelvey, who played for both Yorktown and Arlington Pride, and recently graduated from Babson College in Wellesley, Mass. “The lessons she taught me transcended basketball. She taught me how to succeed in my career.”
McKelvey credits Gill with instilling in her the self-discipline, personal presentation and focus she needed to land her dream job this spring as a sales team assistant with Marriott International.
Today, Gill and Johnson run Momentum3, a year-round youth sports program based in Arlington that emphasizes teamwork, integrity and sportsmanship. Those fundamentals, Gill says, allow players to see beyond their superficial differences and succeed, both on the court and in life.
“[She teaches] players to rely on themselves,” says former Yorktown and Arlington Pride basketball player Billee Ripy, now a political science and English major at West Virginia University. “She teaches you how to work for what you want.”
Like Ripy and McKelvey, most of Gill’s former players still keep in touch. They still see her as their coach.
“It’s a different level of caring,” says Rock Spring resident Warren Negri, whose daughters, Lena and Ava, had Gill as a coach for six years. (Gill recently traveled to Boston to see Lena play for Emmanuel College.)
“Chummy was able to bring these young women together from a multitude of socioeconomic backgrounds and teach them not only to be a team on the floor, but to have respect and deal with each other with kindness,” Negri says.
Riverwood resident Gregory Page, whose daughter Allison played for Yorktown and Arlington Pride, recalls that Gill never yelled and, unlike some coaches, rarely got off the bench. “Their motivational technique was yelling, and girls have a tendency to shut down when coached by yelling and humiliation,” he says. “She focused more on educating the women for life, not just sports.”
At 5 feet 5 and a half inches, Gill isn’t as tall as one might expect, but her presence is large. She aspires to be a “quiet giant,” she explains, repeating a phrase that community members used to describe her mom in her mom’s eulogy. Shirley Gill believed that every person—even the “bums” she passed on her way to work every day—had a story that was worth acknowledging.
“There’s still a lot to be done,” Gill says reflectively. “If you care enough about your community, you can be change. If I’m true to who I am, then I’m making a difference in the life of a kid.”
Sometimes, the most effective approach is one-on-one.
Amy Brecount White coaches an Arlington girls’ recreational soccer team and is inspired by Gill’s calm persistence.