ON THE PLAQUE: In basketball, first-team All-Ivy as a senior when she led the league in scoring (20.1 ppg). Had the first 40-point game in program history (1987 vs. Yale), and her 19 field goals in that game remain a program and Ivy League record. Also graduated with the record for field goals in a season (188 in 1987). In track & field, graduated as the program’s record holder in javelin (149 feet 10 inches), a mark that stood for 16 years, and won two Heptagonal titles in the event. Two-time team MVP in both sports.
Written by Dave Zeitlin C'03, this feature originally appeared on PennAthletics.com on April 24, 2017
Throughout high school, Robyn Fortsch C’87 GEd’88 spent a lot of time on the campus where she’d go on to be an athletic star. But these weren’t the kind of visits she liked; she was there to be treated for a series of knee injuries that threatened to derail a promising basketball career.
“Today, it’s not such a big deal,” Fortsch said. “You blow out your ACL, you get it fixed, and six months later you’re back playing. But back then, you didn’t know. I didn’t know anybody who had really successfully come back from that and ever played again.
“Fortunately, I had access to Penn and one of the best doctors in the country.”
The surgeries at the Hospital of University of Pennsylvania went perfectly but the baggage of blowing out both of her knees caused several colleges to back out of recruiting the standout forward from Ocean City (N.J.) High School.
Once again, it was Penn that came to the rescue, in large part because, as Fortsch put it, the Quakers “weren’t risking anything by taking a chance on me” since they don’t offer athletic scholarships.
There may not have been a big risk but there certainly was a huge reward as Fortsch grew into not only a high-scoring hoopster but also a record-setting javelin thrower on the women’s track team. And now, three decades later, she’s entering the Penn Athletics Hall of Fame—with, we should note, a brand new set of knees after getting both replaced last year.
“Penn was kind of my saving grace,” she said, “to continue doing what I really loved doing—which is playing basketball.”
Although thrilled to get the opportunity to play college basketball, it didn’t always come easy for her. She had some struggles during her first three seasons and so did the team, which won only four games in her junior campaign of 1985-86.
But everything clicked into place for her as a senior as she led the Ivy League in scoring with 20.1 points per game. And to top it all off, she scored a whopping 40 points in her final college game, a 94-69 win over Yale at the Palestra. That currently ranks fourth all-time in program history, and the 19 field goals she made that night remain a Penn record.
Looking back on her senior-season revival, Fortsch credits then-assistant coach Deirdre Kane, who she said “literally changed everything for me.” But Kane—who arrived at Penn before the 1986-87 season and stayed just one year before leaving to run the West Chester University women’s program for the next 27 years—thinks it all came down to Fortsch’s own mental fortitude.
“What I remember most about Robyn was her toughness—and never complaining,” said Kane, who remains close with Fortsch. “She had toughness like no other kid I saw.”
In many ways, Fortsch was ahead of her time in a sport that was still in its early stages following the passage of Title IX.
“She had a real jumper, and real jumpers were rare back then,” Kane said. “She could get off her shot. Despite her knee problems, she was still explosive. She wasn’t just a scorer — she hustled, she dove, she rebounded. And the rest of her teammates loved her, so when she got a hot hand, they just found her.”
Fortsch was a lot more than just a great basketball player. She was an all-around athlete who initially intended to play softball at Penn. When that didn’t work out, she decided to throw the javelin after her freshman-year roommate told her the track team was looking for new members. And despite having never thrown a javelin before—“The first time I threw one, it kind of went like a helicopter,” she laughed—she ended up winning Heptagonal titles in 1985 and 1986 and setting a program record in 1986 with a throw of 149 feet, 10 inches. The record stood until 2002 and now ranks sixth on Penn’s all-time list.
“She was what we call a true athlete,” said Tony Tenisci, a former throwing and women’s track coach at Penn. “Her talents ran across the board. She was a superstar here in basketball. And when that was done, she stepped off the basketball court, came onto the javelin runway and was a Heptagonal champion.
“She was just a tough, tough kid. She loved to win. She had this real, ‘I’m gonna beat you’ type of thing.’”
Because of her attitude and natural athletic ability, Tenisci thought she even had the potential to take her javelin throwing to the next level. In fact, Fortsch remembers him telling her on more than one occasion, ‘If you would just quit basketball, I could take you the the Olympics.’” Of course, Tenisci said he would never want to deny her the opportunity to play basketball, which he knew was “her first love.” And for Fortsch, the opportunity to star on the Franklin Field track was simply an added—and unexpected—bonus to the memories she forged at The Palestra.
“I was the first person in my entire family to go to college,” she said. “I really wanted to play basketball, and Penn was the place that allowed me to do it. I never thought I’d get caught up in the Ivy League tradition stuff, but you can’t help it. Once you’re there, there’s no way you can’t get caught up in all of the history and the traditions. I feel so fortunate that Penn is where I got to spend my time and get my education and play basketball. I still get goose bumps when I think about The Palestra.”
After graduating, Fortsch’s competitive drive continued to churn. She played recreational basketball for as long as her knees allowed, softball throughout her 30s, and even women’s semi-pro tackle football for six years. And she coached basketball and softball in New Jersey for a long time before moving to Florida, where she recently graduated with a masters in industrial engineering with a concentration in orthotics and prosthetics from Florida State University. She did that after seeing amputees competing in sports, which “inspired” her to want to be involved in making prosthetic limbs to “give someone the mobility back they didn’t have before.”
For Fortsch, it will be a rewarding second career. And, it seems, there are few people better equipped to help athletes overcome adversity than one who did so herself.
“It taught me you can get through anything if you stick with it and persevere,” Fortsch said of her injuries and her early struggles at Penn. “A lot of things in my life I’m able to get through because I got through those experiences back then.”