Impacting Generations of Students Through Athletics

Nancy Zurn Bernardini has served as coach, teacher, mentor, and friend, impacting multiple generations of students through athletics and physical education at George School since 1978. As she prepares to retire at the end of this school year, Nancy reflects on her coaching philosophy, what she is most grateful for, and the one memory that stands out during her time here.

An athlete herself, Nancy played at the collegiate level at Ursinus College and for the US Women’s National Field Hockey team before starting her career at George School. Nancy arrived at George School in 1978 as the Assistant Girls’ Athletic Director. She heard about the job opening from her field hockey coach, who knew Anne LeDuc through US Hockey. Anne was the Girl’s Athletic Director at George School during that time. Nancy was also familiar with Quaker education having been a student at Abington Friends School from preschool to 12th grade.

For Nancy, her unwavering dedication and commitment these past forty-four years can be attributed to one group—the students. “I love coaching, I love teaching physical education, I love advising, and I love the challenge of helping students navigate everyday issues and how to solve them,” said Nancy. “Their growth made me feel like I was always growing too. I have coached numerous field hockey, lacrosse, and basketball teams over the years, and it means everything as a coach for me to see a team come together and soar beyond their limits.”

“You see students building their confidence right in front of you. I enjoy watching them learn to love a sport as much as I love coaching,” continued Nancy. “It is important that girls, even today, learn to build their confidence and to believe in themselves as capable athletes equal to men. I have always believed that every single person is capable of learning and improving at their own level. That to me, is the value of athletics. When people believe in themselves, they can always push further than they thought possible.”

Nancy’s philosophy has always been to make sports intense but also fun. “While hard work is important, it is okay to have fun—having fun does not mean that you are any less serious,” explained Nancy. “I also wanted my teams to finish their season knowing that confidence, loving what you do, and teamwork can be carried over into any job or pursuit outside of athletics and can make you a stronger and more well-rounded person. It was never about the wins and losses. It was about the journey—and recognizing the effort that goes into the journey—whatever the outcome. That to me is success. I am really proud of my students who love to play sports, and those who have gone on to play at a higher level, or who have gone on to coach teams of their own.”

There is one memory in particular that stands out to Nancy during her years of coaching at George School. “I will always remember the first year we beat Germantown Friends in lacrosse after their thirteen-year reign. No one expected us to win, but we just kept getting better and better throughout the season. It was great to see how hard the students worked and that the results of their efforts led them to winning the championship that year. Every year, the championship is where you want to end up, but that is not what is most important to me. It was the teams’ growth through their determination and hard work. They beat expectations and I am still so proud of what they accomplished.”

Nancy was emotional as she reflected on her time at George School. When asked about what message she would give to the generations of students whose lives she has impacted, she said, “For me, I just want to have impacted one student. You never know, when you do a job of service like this, whether or not you have made an impact. I am so proud of everyone I have ever coached, but I am also more thankful for what they have taught me. I have learned so much about life from my athletes and students. They kept me young, excited, and made me love coming to work every day. I am more appreciative than they will ever know.”

“There have been so many strong women who have coached with me at George School,” continued Nancy. “Coaches like Anne LeDuc, Polly Lodge, Chéri Mellor, Laura Kinnel, and so many others who have been role models for me and taught me about being a strong woman and advocate for our students. George School is where I grew up and where I learned so much about life from so many amazing people—especially Anne, Juana Moody, and George Long.”

With retirement on the horizon after this final season, Nancy has many things to look forward to. “Being an athletic director and working in athletics requires a lot of late nights and work on the weekends. I am looking forward to seeing my son and daughter, and spending time with my grandson. I do not know what retirement will bring, but I am nervous and excited for what will come.”