Sports Journalism Blog

Washington Huskies women's basketball redshirt junior center Katie Collier. (Photo via Washington Athletics)

Washington Huskies women’s basketball redshirt junior center Katie Collier. (Photo via Washington Athletics)

By Frank Gogola | @FrankGogola

Sports Capital Journalism Program

INDIANAPOLIS – Washington redshirt junior Katie Collier sat in front of her locker after an hour-long practice on Saturday. She stared across the room at a table full of food and muttered, “I’m so hungry.”

Collier had just hit the first half-court shot in a competition the Huskies usually hold at the end of practice. She’s made shots in the past, but this one was different. This one came at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in preparation for the Women’s Final Four, a game in which she never thought she’d play.

Sept. 24, 2011, is a day Collier remembers well. The Covington, Wash., native, who grew up a Husky fan and attended games since she was in elementary school, was on her official visit to Washington. She woke up with blood on her pillow and thought it was a nosebleed until she realized her gums were bleeding. As her nausea and fatigue lingered, she was rushed to the hospital that night.

Collier was diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia. That wouldn’t stop her from playing 18 games her senior year of high school, while undergoing eight months of chemotherapy. She still finished as the all-time leading scorer in Seattle Christian High School history. The Seattle Times named her State Player of the Year and she was a McDonald’s All-American selection.

If Collier’s September diagnosis was frightening, Jan. 3, 2012, was even more traumatic. Her arms and legs went numb and she felt nauseous. She had violent convulsions and thought she was going to die.

“I don’t think I can compare it to anything,” Collier said. “But it’s like having food poisoning and the flu and everything on top of each other.”

Collier had a scholarship offer from Washington prior to her diagnosis, and the coaching staff honored its offer if she chose the Huskies over UCLA and Gonzaga and could still play.

She was declared cancer-free in April 2012 and moved 45 minutes away to the Seattle campus that summer. The move forced her to give up her horse Harley, a black thoroughbred with a white diamond on its forehead. “A country girl at heart,” she got the horse as a high school sophomore and rode it every day after school.

Giving up the horse was tough. But it was nothing compared to cancer, which she did not even view as a challenge.

“Katie’s a fighter,” said senior guard Alexus Atchley. “Her story is just so amazing. I think the most amazing part is that she doesn’t think it’s a big deal. People talk to her about it all the time, and she’s like, ‘Yeah, yeah.’ She just uses it as her outlook on life.”

Added junior Chantel Osahor: “I’ve never been around someone so positive. She just has so much love in her. She’s just an inspiration even if you don’t know all that. She’s the nicest person you’d ever meet. And when you hear all that stuff and then see who she is and see all she’s gone through and to see where she is now, it’s just awesome.”

With cancer beaten, Collier was on campus and was feeling well. Basketball was beginning and things were looking up.

Then, she made one wrong move in a preseason practice.

Collier heard the pop and went down. It was a simple post move, but it tore her ACL.

“The ACL was tremendously difficult for me because I just got over cancer and it just hit me again,” Collier said. “And it kept me off the court, which cancer wasn’t able to do, so that was hard.”

Collier surrounded herself with her family, teammates and “just basketball in general, just the idea and the hope of getting back out on the court. With any struggle, you have to have a mindset of ‘I’m going to get through this.’ Because if you don’t then you aren’t.”

Collier redshirted her freshman season and had to work her way back. During that summer she interned with Ronald McDonald House Charities. She’s currently working with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society to raise awareness and money to help find a cure for leukemia.

She returned to the court the next season and played in 32 games with four starts, averaging 3.8 points and 2.2 rebounds. Last year, she played in 29 games and made one start, posting 2.8 points and 2.3 rebounds.

The breakthrough came this year for both Collier and Washington. She’s started in all 36 games and has averaged 6 points and 5.5 rebounds per game during the program’s first-ever Final Four run. The Huskies take on No. 4 Syracuse Sunday.

An hour before she hit the half-court shot at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, she slowly walked out to the court and took a minute to look around the stadium at fans who came out for an open practice. She’s happy to be at the Final Four. But it’s more than that. She’s taking in all the small things and enjoying every moment.

“Katie is the sunshine of this group. She’s definitely my inspiration,” said redshirt senior Talia Walton. “Sometimes we just want to shut down when we’re having a bad day. But for me, I just think about Katie and what she’s been through and see where she’s at from then to now. I tell myself, ‘If Katie can get through that I can get through whatever’s bothering me.’ She’s an amazing person. You can’t look at her and not smile.”