As a sophomore at Kennebunk High in 2018, Grace Campanella won the first of her two state championships in high school tennis. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

WELLS — Jacqui Holmes can still see the unassuming teenager strolling up to the tennis courts at Kennebunk High.

Grace Campanella likely would be wearing a tie-dye T-shirt and oversize sunglasses and sipping an energy drink from an Aroma Joe’s cup. Most certainly, she would be smiling. If a dog happened to be nearby, Campanella would stop to scratch behind its ears. Oh, how she loved animals, dogs in particular.

Once on court, however, the teenager would transform.

“She just turned on the switch when she was playing tennis,” said Holmes, who has coached the girls’ program at Kennebunk High since 2016. “She was the most humble and focused and tenacious player on the court.”

Campanella won Maine’s singles state championship as a sophomore (beating her older sister Rosemary in the finals) and junior (dropping only one game in five matches). She was the overwhelming favorite to make it three in a row before the coronavirus pandemic wiped out the 2020 spring sports season.

Still, by then she had accepted an athletic scholarship to play NCAA Division I tennis at the University of Rhode Island, where she planned to get a degree in animal science so she could be a veterinarian.


The pandemic did more than strip Campanella of that last high school season and her momentum. The forced isolation and accompanying anxiety spiraled into despair and depression. She became estranged from the college tennis team. She lost interest in academics. The darkest hour came last month in Wells.

On Jan. 11, Grace Campanella died by suicide while on winter break in her senior year at URI. She was 22.

Her parents and older sister are devastated. In Grace’s obituary, the family wrote: She struggled the past two years to see a life ahead of her. We will now struggle to see a life without her.

The Campanellas are hopeful that, in sharing Grace’s story, they can help chip away at the stigma surrounding suicide, raise awareness of mental illness, and encourage those who see a friend or loved one in crisis to offer support.

“If it helps even one person,” her father, Kevin, said.

“… one family,” her mother, Karen, added.


“… even one family to recognize, to ask for help,” Kevin Campanella continued. “Even though it’s sometimes hard to find, you have to at least ask for help.”


Rosemary Campanella, Grace’s older sister, was also a standout tennis player in high school and went on to play for Merrimack College. Press Herald 2018 file photo

The first Campanella to capture public attention in Maine was Rosemary, who as a 15-year-old freshman at Wells High School petitioned the Maine Principals’ Association to change rules concerning cooperative teams so she could play for neighboring Kennebunk High and not simply as an individual for Wells, which offered no varsity program. She was able to play for the co-op team her sophomore, junior and senior years, and she reached the singles state finals in each of them.

Grace transferred from Wells to the Kennebunk school district in eighth grade, a move made possible because her mother teaches special education at Kennebunk High. During Grace’s last year at Wells, her cousin Jimmy died of cancer at 24. The emotional toll, along with the fact that Grace (born in September) was one of the youngest in her class, led to the decision that she would repeat eighth grade in Kennebunk.

Athletics, her parents said, played no role in that decision.

“She just needed another year to grow up,” her mother said. “It was also a way for her to make friends and socially start to fit in before jumping in to a new high school.”


One of those new friends was Emma Enis, now a senior at the University of New England in Biddeford. Enis played field hockey at Kennebunk High and went to Baylor University in Texas for a year before transferring to UNE.

“She had the most radiant smile,” Enis said of Grace. “I feel like that’s the image most people saw. But being close friends, it was tough – because I also saw how much she struggled.”

Artwork by Grace Campanella. “Every time I see a sunflower, I think of her,” says her college roommate, Mel Tibbitts. “She had the most beautiful smile and laugh that I’ve ever heard in my life.” Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The first sign of any problem was a diagnosis of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, more commonly known as ADHD. Later on, that diagnosis would be reversed, then reinstated. Anxiety and depression didn’t crop up in a clinical way until college.

As a high school junior, Grace took a required history class from Greg Smith, who prefers projects and essays to tests and quizzes. Initially skeptical, Grace flourished.

“She loved thinking,” Smith said, “as long as she didn’t have to then sit down and fill out a multiple-choice test from memory.”

Smith remembered one group assignment for an oral presentation of at least five minutes. Grace timed hers at 5 minutes, 10 seconds speaking calmly and clearly, but expressed worry that her partner, who was presenting, might speak faster and could be done in under five minutes.


“The average for kids in that class was not to take the time to time it to begin with,” Smith said. “But then to take the time to think about what speed is this going to be for someone else? It shows not only how much she cared, but also in the negative way. She really was always in her head about Is this going to be good? Is this going to be right? Am I going to be accepted?


Artwork spread over the Campanella family table is colorful and often includes animals: elephants, giraffes, a dragonfly, two birds perched on a branch. All created by Grace. She could wield a paintbrush as adeptly as she handled a tennis racket.

Artwork by Grace Campanella. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Her first year in high school, Grace was seeded fifth in the state singles tennis tournament and advanced to the semifinals before losing to the eventual champion and top seed. It would be her only high school defeat.

As a sophomore, Grace played No. 2 singles for Kennebunk, with Rosemary at No. 1. They met in the finals of the singles tournament, an awkward occasion for the family, and Grace won in straight sets.

Rosemary continued her tennis career at Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts. Back in Maine, Grace rolled through the singles tournament her junior spring, winning four matches without dropping a game before closing out her second title 6-1, 6-0 over an exchange student from Bangor High.


“She was just so fascinating to watch,” said Holmes, her high school coach. “She would pick up on her opponent’s weaknesses and focus on them. But she’d also pick up on their strengths, and that’s what she would want to work on in the weeks to come.”

Mike Hill, tennis director at Apex Racquet and Fitness, remembers Grace’s sarcastic humor, her kindness and her superior cognitive skills.

“She was really intuitive,” Hill said. “She could read a point better than anyone I worked with. Just a very critical thinker out on the court.”

Grace Campanella won the second of her two high school state tennis championships as a Kennebunk junior in 2019. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Junior tennis can be a nasty business, Hill said, and the pressure to succeed can result in mind games or outright cheating.

“It’s an honor sport but a lot of good players at the junior level have no honor,” he said. “Grace always played with honor. She would always come into a match with the right intentions.”

Grace signed a national letter of intent to attend URI in early November 2019. She told a reporter from a tennis recruiting website that Rhode Island was her first choice, the place that felt most like home and had all she was looking for in a college, including a working farm with animals.


Four months later, the pandemic hit, evaporating the spring tennis season and traditional rites of passage – proms, graduations, senior gatherings.

“I can’t imagine how difficult that was for all of them,” Kevin Campanella said of Grace and her friends. “Looking back, I do feel it may have started her down the dark path she ended on. She did have some signs earlier than that, but it certainly wasn’t to the extent that it developed into.”

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among college students, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Experts caution that it almost never is the result of a single event – that stressors and mental health issues build up to produce feelings of hopelessness and despair.

College athletics introduce additional pressures, not only to perform but also to juggle the demands of academics with practices, training and everyday life. In a two-month stretch of spring in 2022, at least six NCAA athletes died by suicide: Sarah Schulze (Wisconsin cross country), Katie Meyer (Stanford soccer), Jayden Hill (Northern Michigan track), Robert Martin (SUNY-Binghamton lacrosse), Lauren Bernett (James Madison softball) and Arlana Miller (Southern cheering).

High-profile athletes such as gymnast Simone Biles, swimmer Michael Phelps and tennis star Naomi Osaka have spoken openly about their mental health struggles – which helps normalize the issue and may offer hope to those in crisis, when it’s difficult to see beyond one’s immediate circumstances.



Grace’s college experience had its ups and downs. She turned 18 soon after arriving at the North Kingstown campus, an adult with a still-developing brain that, research shows, matures at about 25. If she skipped a class, a therapy session or medication, her parents wouldn’t necessarily know about it.

“I can’t call and make an appointment for her,” her mother said. “I can’t have any of her medical records. But you know what they did really well? They found her for every … medical bill that she ever had. And if I wanted to talk to them about paying the bill as a parent, no problem. Don’t ask what the services were for.”

The entire system of mental health care – providers, insurance coverage, accessibility – frustrates the Campanellas. Nearly three weeks passed after her daughter’s traumatic death before Karen was able to see a therapist.

Grace joined a URI women’s tennis program that included only one other freshman, from the Czech Republic. Of the nine women on the roster, she was the only player from New England. There was practice that first fall during the pandemic, with face masks, but no competition with other schools.

Campus life was different, too, with some older students housed in nearby hotels and most classes online. Grace lived alone in a dorm room meant for three. She would pick up her meals from the cafeteria and bring them back to her room to eat. Often she would connect over an iPad with Karen at lunchtime.

To help combat such isolation, URI offered counseling and Grace took advantage. That’s when her mental health struggles came to light, Karen said.


Grace missed home. She missed her miniature poodles, Penny and Dexter. Still, she seemed to get along well with her new teammates.

Marissa Pitrone, the assistant URI tennis coach at the time, connected with Grace as a fellow New Englander of Italian heritage.

Pitrone knew it wasn’t easy for a two-time state champion mostly to be watching and cheering from the sidelines.

“She didn’t play a lot of matches,” Pitrone said. “And the ones she did play, she struggled a bit. Whether or not that was a factor with her mental health, I don’t know.”

At Grace’s behest, the Campanellas built a backyard coop in 2021 where she could raise baby chicks. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

In the spring, Grace compiled a 5-1 record in singles and went 1-1 in doubles for a 9-2 team that reached the Atlantic 10 Conference semifinals and was ranked 93rd nationally, the highest in program history. In late April 2021, Grace was named the conference’s Rookie of the Week for women’s tennis.

What Pitrone remembers most is that Grace wasn’t shy or reserved, that she always seemed to have a smile on her face. When Grace returned home to Wells that first summer, she asked her parents if it would be OK to raise some baby chicks into chickens. They built a backyard coop.



The next two years at URI didn’t go so well. On the bright side, Grace moved into a suite along with three softball players and Mel Tibbitts, an education major from Warwick, Rhode Island. They quickly forged a strong bond.

“We started talking and wouldn’t leave each other alone,” Tibbitts said. “We’d send each other our schedules, take naps at the same time and wake up so we could talk again.”

Grace Campanella holds Gwinnie, one of the chickens that she persuaded her family to start raising at their home in Wells. Courtesy of the Campanella family

The athletic and mental health front proved more difficult for Grace. Funding for on-campus counseling dried up and her name went on a waitlist.

“They ran out of providers,” said Karen Campanella, and the task of finding a private therapist (approved by insurance and accepting new patients) proved formidable. State licensing regulations were another barrier.

“If she was seeing somebody in Rhode Island, she couldn’t see them in Maine when she was home,” her mother said. “When she was in Maine, she couldn’t see them in Rhode Island. Same thing with prescriptions. Any of her prescriptions had to be with a prescriber who was licensed in the state that she was residing in.”


Pitrone, the tennis assistant, had taken a coaching job at a local high school to better fit her life with two young children. On court, Grace played more doubles (going 8-5 with two different partners) than singles (3-2) for a team that would go a combined 9-13 and win only one conference match.

In late December, while home for winter break, Grace made her first attempt to end her life.

Her parents were stunned.

“We did not see any warning signs coming at all,” her father said. “I mean, she had anxiety struggles as a teenager that were not uncommon for her age group, but nothing to that extent.”

Grace received both inpatient and outpatient treatment. She eventually returned to campus, after other students. She rejoined the tennis team, but only to practice, not compete in matches. The Atlantic 10 Conference granted her a medical hardship waiver, preserving a season of eligibility.

That April, Rosemary’s Merrimack team, which had moved up from Division II after her first year, traveled to North Kingstown to play URI. Her collegiate athletic experience was different from her sister’s.


“I know tennis is an individual sport, but in college it’s not,” Rosemary said. “On the right team, you’ll be surrounded by girls who support you because they want you – they want everyone – to succeed. On the wrong team, you won’t receive that support along with that good level of healthy pressure. You just get the pressure and no support.”

Of course, expectations for an established program may differ from those for a Division I newcomer. Rosemary also dealt with a diagnosed breathing disorder that, like mental illness, she described as invisible to her teammates. Some were skeptical and questioned her effort. Grace undoubtedly experienced something similar, her sister said.

“Some people confuse invisible with not actually there,” she said. “The invisibility of mental illness is such a struggle, and awareness is crucial in fighting the stigma.”


Grace Campanella’s therapy hamster, Delilah. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Grace remained on campus into June 2022 to make up work she had missed. Back home that summer, she got a therapy hamster named Delilah. She played with her dogs. She cared for her chickens.

Her junior fall semester started poorly, first because she got COVID-19 and therefore was late rejoining the tennis team, then because a mold outbreak forced her out of her dorm room for a week.


She struggled academically, and went 2-3 in singles and 3-6 in doubles for a tennis team from which she felt increasingly detached. Tibbitts, her roommate, began attending team social gatherings so Grace would have an ally.

“I still don’t really understand it,” Tibbitts said. “She liked it for a while, but I think they made it un-fun for her to do. She couldn’t really enjoy her sport like she could before.”

A sprained ankle in November meant Grace returned home for Thanksgiving wearing a boot and using crutches. In December, head coach Valerie Villucci dismissed her from the team. In January, the school revoked her athletic scholarship for the following year.

Grace, with support from her family, appealed the scholarship decision, and in early April the school reinstated the full out-of-state tuition but not room and board. Tibbitts remembers celebrating with Grace, but later that month wound up calling paramedics when Grace made a second attempt at suicide.

“I know she was struggling a lot, and she wouldn’t tell anybody,” Tibbitts said. “I feel like a lot of people have more mental health issues than before COVID happened. It definitely contributed to a lot of people feeling really isolated and alone in the world. It’s lingering still.”

Administrators at the University of Rhode Island declined to provide information about Grace other than to confirm her tennis record. After initially saying they had been asked by the family not to comment, they told the family that their policy is never to disclose private health or mental health information to the media. Messages left with Grace’s coach, Villucci, who retired last spring, were not returned.


Grace Campanella in a photo her parents found on her cellphone after her death. Courtesy of the Campanella family

Throughout Grace’s ordeal, her parents made it clear to her that she didn’t have to continue at URI, that she could transfer or take a break from school. But she wanted to stay. She had made good friends. She loved Peckham Farm – 300 acres of woodlands, wetlands and barns that house sheep, goats, pigs, cows and donkeys – across the street from campus. Without the athletic pressure, maybe things would improve.

Grace assured her parents she was fine, both over the phone and in their visits to campus. Rosemary, now working in Boston as a software engineer, had a standing deal with her little sister: She would drop everything and come, whenever and wherever Grace asked.

“She took me up on it sometimes,” Rosemary said, “and I did.”

Isolation and loneliness can seem overwhelming, her sister said, and it’s hard to recognize as a symptom of mental illness, but help is out there.

“That’s something my family and I are hoping those struggling with mental illness can take from this,” Rosemary said. “If just one more person who is struggling can know that the loneliness is just a symptom, and not a fight to be fought alone.”



As her family would learn later, Grace rarely attended class last fall. They didn’t know she had stopped treatment and medications. She hid her academic struggles from her sister, from her parents, from her roommates.

“I don’t know if she went to a lot of classes or did a lot of schoolwork,” Tibbitts said. “She seemed happy, but of course that doesn’t mean she was happy during that time.”

Back home in Maine over winter break, Grace kept up the cheerful facade. When their girls were growing up, their parents used to give them gifts by color – red for Rose, green for Grace. At Christmas, Rose presented Grace with a forest-green pocketbook.

“She loved green so much,” Tibbitts said. “And sunflowers. Every time I see a sunflower, I think of her. She had the most beautiful smile and laugh that I’ve ever heard in my life.”

A memorial service honoring the life of Grace Campanella will be held on March 2 at 2 p.m. in the auditorium of Kennebunk High School.

UPDATE: This story was corrected at 10:14 a.m. on Feb. 18 to show that Sarah Schulze was a cross country runner at the University of Wisconsin and that Katie Meyer was a soccer player at Stanford University.


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