Katie Collier, with help from her team and family, feels like a player again
Washington freshman basketball player Katie Collier is recovering from a serious knee injury. Collier has been able to begin running, which she says makes her feel more like a basketball player again.
Seattle Times staff reporter
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The first sign is universal.
A player feels a pop. Then the fearful question: "Is it my ACL?"
Washington freshman Katie Collier was no exception on July 30 during a pickup game at Harshman Court in Alaska Airlines Arena.
She made a simple post move against former Huskies player Mollie Williams and heard the pop.
Collier, a McDonald's All-American, was just getting into the feel of being a Washington athlete. There were the summer pickup games. There was goofing with friend and fellow freshman Heather Corral and UW men's basketball coach Lorenzo Romar, who would lower the rims on the main court and let them dunk.
"All I remember is looking over and the look on Heather's face was so distraught," Collier said.
Corral sobbed uncontrollably for her friend, prompting redshirt freshman Talia Walton to escort her to the concourse of the arena.
Collier was later told she had torn the anterior cruciate ligament, the medial collateral ligament and the meniscus in her right knee.
Corral had roomed with Collier on their UW recruiting visit in September 2011 when Collier woke to a pillow stained with blood. She was diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia. Corral was one of the frequent visitors to Collier's bedside at the hospital as she fought the disease.
Another setback seemed cruel.
"Everyone was shocked but I just broke into tears," said Corral.
Corral, who suffered a ruptured ACL as a junior at Prairie High School, has had four knee surgeries the past three years.
"I would never wish that on anybody and to see one of my best friends go through that ... I would trade places in a heartbeat because I know how hard it can be," Corral said. "Katie has been through so much. To add on to that, I just felt horrible. But I realized I needed to be there for Katie."
And Corral has been. She walked Collier through what would happen during the surgical procedure and was an extra nurse as Collier went through seven months of rehabilitation.
Collier was happy last week to report she was running and able to warm up with her team, although she still can't practice. She's also cleared to jump and pivot, but no cutting or lateral movements.
"I feel like a player out there," she said. "I felt that not running was holding me back from feeling like a true athlete. You're supposed to be active. Just being on a bike for cardio does not feel like a basketball player."
The process made Collier learn more about knee injuries than she cared to know.
"It seems like it's an epidemic," Washington coach Kevin McGuff said of the injuries.
An epidemic Corral is familiar with. The women in her family have undergone a combined 14 surgeries due to playing basketball, prompting Corral to pursue a career as an orthopedic surgeon after school.
Dr. Kim Harmon, Washington's associate head team physician, wrote a research paper in the 1980s on why ACL tears occurred more with women, but couldn't prove the theory because of the lack of statistics. Many more studies on the subject have been published since, yet no conclusive reasons have been established for why the tears happen more in soccer and basketball, or why women are more susceptible than men.
The ACL is primarily used for keeping the knee in place while running and jumping. When torn, it doesn't repair itself like other parts of the body. It has to be reconstructed, normally using part of the hamstring, as in Collier's case.
"When you first start to cover games as a doctor, you do worry about it (ACL injuries)," said Dr. Albert Gee, an assistant professor in the UW Department of Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine. "You're anxious about what could happen out there, and how do I respond? But it's such a fast-paced sport, it's hard to pay attention to that detail ... and there's still a lot of uncertainties about why an ACL injury happens, period."
In the past five years, UW athletic trainer Jenn Ratcliff has taught athletes to jump and land differently, and how to build stronger muscles in their hamstrings as preventive measures. The Huskies have started to implement different drills in warm-ups to guard against injury.
McGuff said he didn't have many players suffer knee injuries while coaching at Xavier for nine years. When he arrived at Washington in April 2011, six players on the roster had already had at least one ACL surgery, and senior Kristi Kingma became the seventh in September 2011 with a season-ending procedure.
McGuff's wife, Letitia, a former forward at Notre Dame, tore her ACL while playing professionally in Italy.
"It ended her career," he said. "Then she got a job at Notre Dame the week before I did. Maybe if she didn't tear her ACL I never would have met her because she would still be playing."
There was no joking when it came to Collier, however. McGuff's recruiting of Collier quickly turned into hoping to see an inspiring young woman survive cancer, not even thinking about his program.
"I haven't been around anybody who's endured such adversity at a young age," McGuff said of the 19-year-old Collier. "To see the way her family has supported her, the way she has embraced this challenge head-on; I don't think I've seen anybody at such a young age with such grace and dignity accept the challenges that she has. It's really been inspiring to me. It helps put a lot of things in perspective for a lot of us."
Collier won't start playing five-on-five until September. Watching remains hard, particularly with the excitement of this week's Pac-12 tournament at KeyArena.
The difference, though, is Collier feels like an athlete again.
Jayda Evans: 206-464-2067 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @JaydaEvans.