Crash Claims Recent Grad: Lisa Thomas Duits capped stellar WSC career in May, was coaching cross country this fall
Oct. 22, 2009 -- Tragedy struck the Western State College family and the greater Gunnison Valley community last weekend when Lisa Thomas Duits was killed in a one-vehicle car accident on Hwy. 135, a few miles north of Almont. She was 23.
Duits graduated from WSC this past May after a stellar athletic and academic career. She decided to stay involved with the school’s vaunted running program, and was a volunteer cross country coach this fall. In September, she married Zachary Duits in Crested Butte. He also is a recent WSC graduate.
Hundreds of students, staff, faculty members, co-workers, acquaintances and family members assembled in WSC’s Paul Wright Gymnasium Tuesday for a memorial service. Funeral services are scheduled for Saturday in Brighton, near where Duits grew up and went to high school.
Investigators say Duits ran off of Hwy. 135 possibly around 2 a.m. Saturday morning, apparently while driving back to her Crested Butte South home after an evening in Gunnison.
Her 2002 Subaru station wagon left the roadway where there happens to be a significant embankment at the top of a hill, just south of the turn off to the Roaring Judy Fish Hatchery.
Colorado State Patrol Sergeant John Ehmsen said it appeared Duits drifted into the oncoming lane of traffic and then over-corrected a couple of times, sending the vehicle into a counter-clockwise spin off the roadway.
The vehicle went airborne off the embankment, landing initially on its top in a field of boulders, according to Ehmsen.
Autopsy results show she died of massive head trauma, according to Gunnison County Coroner Frank Vader. Toxicology results were expected later this week.
The accident was first spotted by some passersby around 8 a.m. Saturday. Vader said Duits’ husband wasn’t expecting her to come home that night because she had to work early Saturday morning at her job at Wells Fargo and was planning to spend the night with friends in Gunnison.
Duits transferred to WSC after attempting to walk on to the University of Colorado’s running program. She had given up running but after a chance meeting with longtime Western track and cross country coach Duane Vandenbusche, she decided to give it another try.
“She was one of the last girls in every run or workout that fall,” recalled current cross country coach Jen Michel. “But she started working her way up. She became one of the great ones at Western.”
Duits earned the Paul Wright Award in 2009 as Western’s top female student-athlete. She led the women’s cross country team to a podium finish at nationals in 2008, was the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference’s champion in the steeplechase in 2009. She earned six All-RMAC honors last season between cross country and indoor and outdoor track.
She was perhaps even more successful in the classroom, where Duits was named to the Dean’s List every semester she attended WSC. She graduated Summa Cum Laude with a double-major in physical education and exercise science. She had obtained a teaching degree, and performed her student teaching in Gunnison K-12 schools.
“Good person, good student, good athlete, in that order. Lisa embodied that philosophy,” said Kathleen Kinkema, a WSC professor who was Duits’ faculty advisor.
A fund has been established at the Western State College Foundation. Memorials can be made by calling (970) 641-2237 or on-line at www.western.edu/foundation.