By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
SEATTLE — It was, and may forever be, the worst recruiting visit Kevin McGuff ever hosted.
That was six months ago. Now, the University of Washington women’s basketball coach is singing a much different tune.
“This,” McGuff said three days ago as he motioned toward incoming UW freshman Katie Collier, “is going to be the most successful story in college athletics the next four years. And I can’t wait to be a part of it.”
The remarkable story truly began almost 19 years ago, when Mark and Ann Collier found out that the family of four they had planned would unexpectedly become a family of five. Next month, when Katie Collier finishes oral treatment for acute promyelocytic leukemia, the Colliers fully expect even happier news when their 18-year-old baby girl expects to be officially ruled cancer-free.
It could be said that cancer picked the wrong person in Katie Collier, a strong-minded, 6-foot-1 high school senior who is such an incredible athlete that she’ll be this state’s lone representative at Wednesday’s McDonald’s All-America game in Chicago. But Mark Collier doesn’t see it that way.
“I think cancer probably picked the right person,” her father said. “Katie’s someone who can handle this, and she’s someone who can inspire people and show people that you can overcome it. She’s proof that you can smile through something that’s difficult.”
While Katie Collier’s basketball journey at UW has yet to begin, it could be said that the first step of the toughest road of her life was taken on her visit there in late September.
The Seattle Christian High School star spent a Friday visiting with McGuff and the UW team, then went to sleep in a hotel room in downtown Seattle that night. After struggling with a sore throat heading into the recruiting trip, she woke up that Saturday morning — Sept. 24, a date she’ll never forget — to find droplets of blood on her pillow. She immediately called her parents, who were attending a tailgate party with McGuff prior to the UW-Cal football game.
UW player Mercedes Wetmore drove Collier back to campus, where she reunited with her parents and went back to their home in Kent to get some rest. She slept for more than five hours, stood up and started vomiting blood. That’s when her parents knew it was time to get her to an emergency room. The urgent-care center at the hospital closest to their house was closed, so the family went to Valley Medical Center in Renton, where her mother, Ann, works.
With family gathered around, a doctor delivered the news that her blood showed the likelihood of acute myeloid leukemia, a form of cancer that has a 40 percent survival rate in a span of five years. Only later did the doctors deduce that it was actually APL, with a survival rate of 95 percent.
While family members — including Ann, who was in remission for breast cancer that was discovered in Feb. 2008 — broke down in tears, Katie stood in the center with her typical resolve.
“She just took it as a matter-of-fact: OK, here’s some news, what are we going to do with it?” said Mark Collier, who texted several people, including McGuff, at 3:30 a.m. to pass on the kind of news no father wants to relay.
Katie Collier said she was shocked by the diagnosis, but she wasn’t going to let it break her.
“I looked around the room, and everyone was bawling,” she said. “I just looked at the doctor and said: ‘OK, where do we go from here?’ I think I was so calm because I knew I wasn’t alone.”
When more than 200 visitors came by in the coming days, and Katie Collier immediately cheered up almost every one of them from a hospital bed, her father knew she wasn’t going to be broken by the disease. The family would receive minor reminders of the power of humanity in the coming days, like when UCLA coach Cori Close flew up to Seattle to be by Katie’s hospital bed while the rest of the family was attending her grandmother’s funeral days after the basketball star was diagnosed, and when Katie and her parents would return home from daily chemotherapy treatments to find a cooler stocked with homemade dinners from neighbors every afternoon.
While friends of the Colliers credit the family’s strength, faith and bond as the main reasons for Katie’s six-month journey from devastation to salvation, her father can’t help but see what he calls obvious signs of divine intervention.
There was the decision of daughter Megan — a twin and one of four of Katie’s older siblings — to drop out of college a few weeks earlier because she felt a calling toward home. Megan would go on to become, in Mark’s words, “the unsung hero” in Katie’s recovery because she stayed by her baby sister’s bedside and later helped out as an assistant coach on the Seattle Christian basketball team.
There was the remarkable timing of Katie’s eventual admittance to UW Medical Center, even though most patients under 21 were sent to nearby Children’s Hospital, on a day when Dr. Elihu Estey happened to be on duty. Estey is the very man who discovered the most effective treatment for APL and brought it to the U.S. from China.
But most of all, there was Katie herself. She had a strength and resolve that had been a part of her personality from a very young age. Her father said it came from always being mistaken for her older twin sisters, which forced her to act more mature than most people her own age. Seattle Christian girls basketball coach Dave Jansen said he could tell Collier had something special from the first time he watched her as a seventh-grader. And UW’s McGuff had his own description.
“She’s a very stubborn son of a gun,” he said last week, “and I say that very affectionately.”
McGuff, Close and Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves all stood by their scholarship offers, regardless of whether Collier would be able to play college basketball. Collier herself used basketball to motivate her recovery — she wouldn’t just be back to play for her freshman year of college; she was also going to finish off her senior year with her Seattle Christian teammates.
Despite going through five weeks of daily chemotherapy treatment, Collier made it back in time to see 10 minutes of action in the annual red-and-white intrasquad scrimmage on Nov. 22. (“I swear,” said Jansen, her high school coach, “two days before that, I wasn’t planning on her playing at all this season.”) Two-and-a-half weeks later, she made her season debut at Vashon Island, continually telling her coach that she was fine even though he could see her legs were so red that they took on a shade of purple. Another round of chemo treatment sidelined her before Collier returned on Dec. 20, when she played against Bellevue Christian and was so out of gas afterward that her eyes were glassy.
One game, she had to retreat to the locker room to vomit, only to come back and finish the game. At halftime of another, she zoned out and looked as if she might pass out. She played with a port connected to her jugular, running along the collarbone and under her jersey, and quickly ditched the bandage that was meant to hold it down because it was uncomfortable under her jersey.
With 30-day-on-30-day-off chemo treatment in between, Collier missed some games but played whenever she had enough energy to suit up. During one round of chemo, she told the doctor to hurry up because she had a 5 p.m. practice she didn’t want to miss.
“Most people didn’t see what she went through just to play this year,” Jansen said.
The incredible acts of humanity continued, like when King’s High School coach Dan Taylor made T-shirts with Collier’s No. 3 on the back and set up donation boxes at his school’s annual Christmas tournament to help pay Collier’s medical bills, or when opposing teams showed up with flowers, or when one opposing post player spent 32 minutes banging elbows with Collier and then hugged her afterward and told her, with tears rolling down her cheeks, what a privilege it had been just to compete with her.
And now Collier is ready to give back. She’s a willing spokesperson for cancer survivors, volunteering her services at Seattle’s Ronald McDonald House. She made an appearance there last week and promised to be back often once she starts attending classes at nearby UW in the fall. She willingly carries her fight as an example to provide hope for others.
But Collier is quick to point out that, no matter what her family, friends and coaches say, she’s just a regular 18-year-old girl.
“This whole thing has been kind of weird to me,” she said three days ago. “I don’t think of myself as anything special. I’m me. I play basketball, I go to school like anyone else. Who cares about me? It’s really weird to have all this attention.”
McGuff knows Collier will bring attention to his program next winter, but that’s not why she’s on scholarship. He knows she can help UW get back into national prominence, and he wouldn’t be surprised if she’s making a major impact in her first game as a freshman.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever encountered anybody that has such a positive outlook in the face of such a serious situation,” said the man who recruited her on the most difficult weekend of Collier’s young life. “So I’m not going to be surprised when she shows up next fall and impacts us right away.
“Now, people that don’t know her that well might be surprised. But it won’t surprise me one bit.”