Washington and Lee's Kathryn Vandiver Knows When To Push Pain
Kathryn braced for the pain.
Shortly thereafter, the 10-year-old headed to the gym ready to show off her newly pierced lobes.
Then the church league referee told her no earrings or no basketball.
But she knew that if she removed them, the holes would close.
And she'd have to go through the pain all over again.
Kathryn immediately ripped out her earrings.
Finding Her Passion
Kathryn Vandiver grew up with her older brother, Jackson. The mere three-year age gap sparked a competitive relationship.
Both Jackson and Kathryn played sports and often practiced against each other. So, when Jackson started basketball, Kathryn quickly followed and improved.
“We would often play one on one and I would never really take it easy on her, and oftentimes she didn’t enjoy that, but she would always want to come back and work harder,” Jackson said.
And she just kept losing. So she worked even harder.
And lost some more. And more.
Until one day . . .Nope, she lost again.
Yet she’d keep coming back for more losses and more pain. But all of those losses and all of that pain just made her stronger and better.
Strong enough to become the only girl on her church team in Charlotte, North Carolina.
She loved it, well, maybe not the rule prohibiting earrings.
Kathryn continued playing into middle school and joined an AAU team where her passion for hoops furthered.
Then she made varsity as a freshman.
By 11th grade she had a major milestone in sight: 1000 points.
Prior to a late season game against Cannon High School she knew she needed to score 14 more.
She hit the court and put on her mask. No, not one of those masks. A full face mask for her very painful broken nose.
Kathryn went in for a layup. She missed.
She went in for another layup. She missed again.
Things were not looking good.
Then she started scoring, quickly approaching the big 1,000.
But a little later she tried a layup, yet again, and leaped off the wrong foot.
“Pretty ugly,” she thought. No chance it would go in.
It did. 1,000!
Kathryn jumped up and down. Then she had to laugh - one of her most important career events and she looked like Hannibal Lecter.
She ended up making First Team All-Conference that year and her senior year. She also became team captain and led her team to two conference championships.
All of Kathryn’s success brought a possibility of playing in college. She had been looking at different schools and the excellence of Washington and Lee stuck out.
One day she walked into the gym in Raleigh for an AAU game. There in the stands, Kacie Lang, the assistant basketball coach at Washington and Lee, sat.
Kathryn knew she had to play her best. The pressure at an all time high. The game began.
Just then, a player shoved her from behind and she skidded across the court - the concrete court with a thin plastic covering.
Definitely not a good look for her.
And so much pain.
Kathryn began to form a bruise the size of her thigh.
Definitely a worse look for her.
Her coach took her out. The pain intensified, her thigh throbbing. Kathryn put her injury aside and told her coach she needed to go back in.
She finished out the game scoring a few times, hoping Coach Lang wouldn’t just write her off as a klutz.
Kathryn scanned the stands. No sign of the coach. She must have left. Kathryn must have blown it.
A bit later, Kathryn checked her texts and likely had more than a few. But one stood out - the one from Coach Lang.
They then chatted on the phone which led to a number of conversations.
Those in turn led to what she had hoped - an invitation to come visit Washington and Lee.
Upon arriving on campus she fell in love with the community feel and believed she could excel there. She spoke with the basketball team and everyone welcomed her. She dreamed of playing 4 years of basketball with the Generals, but she needed something: an offer from the coach.
She made a second visit hoping for some good news.
As she walked in the gym she spotted Head Coach Christine Clancy and then sat down to speak.
Coach then gave it to her straight: get accepted by the school and there’s a spot waiting on the team.
Making a Decision
Kathryn took the ACT. Her reading score–perfect.
Her math score–respectable. But if Kathryn wanted a better chance of getting into Washington and Lee she had to improve.
She took the ACT again.
What about an exception since she would be on the basketball team?
That doesn’t happen at Washington and Lee.
So, she took the ACT again.
Days passed and she decided to take it again. This had to be the one.
Scores come in. Nerves wholly intensified. Results . . .
Pain. Lots of pain. Who could possibly opt for more?
Yet another round of studying, stressing, and hoping.
So worth it.
Finally, her score improved.
She now had a chance. She applied early decision, praying that her willingness to commit would sway the admissions office.
Then the long awaited day came.
Kathryn had a game that afternoon. Though physically on the court, her mind wandered.
She knew she would find out after the game, and she caught herself staring at the clock.
Kathryn continually missing her free throws, unable to focus.
Her head filled with questions. “What if I don’t get in?” , “Will I have to transfer?,” “Where am I going to go to school?”
But she pushed through.
And the team won.
Kathryn then opened her email.
She clicked refresh. Then refresh. Then . . .
Confetti shot on the screen.
Her persistence finally paid off.
Kathryn got accepted!
Washington and Lee Life
Kathryn loved W&L. She “was more than just a number in the classroom,” and playing for a Division 3 school allowed her the ability to do more things like join the Outing Club.
Her freshman year became shortened because of COVID, but she returned to campus her sophomore year determined to have a normal basketball season.
In the fall her mother sat her down to talk.
She said a lot but only one thing stuck out–cancer.
Her mom had breast cancer.
Pain hit. Harder than it had before.
Her mom scheduled a lumpectomy. Unfortunately, the procedure was slated for January after Kathryn had returned to school for basketball season.
With COVID in full swing and the surgery approaching, Kathryn began to question why she couldn’t just take care of her mom. All of her friends were home for the semester. Why not her too?
“We hadn’t had any games, we were about to, but who knows because at any point the whole world could just shut down again.”
She had bad practices and missed free throws.
She knew if she tried hard enough to power through she could.
Though maybe she shouldn’t.
Basketball had always been worth the pain.
Maybe not always anymore.
Now she realized she needed to focus on her mom and her mom’s pain.
She didn’t know what she would do if the procedure did not go well.
The day finally arrived.
And then came more stress. And prayers. And worry.
And the procedure - which went well.
About a year later, in September of her junior year, Kathryn’s mom had a check up.
Again, Kathryn’s hope for a normal basketball season withered as her mom headed for a double mastectomy.
Kathryn didn’t get it. She had already dealt with this once, why couldn’t the universe give her mom a break?
Kathryn met someone on campus whose mother went through the same thing. Kathryn opened up to her.
She now had an outlet: someone to express her concerns to, someone who went through the same situation, someone to help her keep things in perspective.
So when Kathryn again had bad practices and again missed some free throws, she didn’t again feel compelled to bust through the pain.
Sometimes basketball actually isn’t worth it.
Second surgery day arrived.
And . . . it went well. The cancer, gone again.
Quest For A Normal Season
By February of her junior year, normalcy returned.
In practice one day, the Generals scrimmaged against each other.
A shot went up
It didn’t go in.
Kathryn immediately jumped up to get the rebound.
She landed a bit awkwardly.
Seconds later - boom - the pain kicked in. She hurt her knee.
Afraid of reduced playing time, she postponed seeing the doctor.
“I was hurting so badly just moving up and down the stairs.”
Pain in every direction.
“Is it worth the pain?” she thought. This time, yes.
Kathryn finished her difficult junior year season as an ODAC All-Academic selection.
And then she conceded that medical attention might be the next best step.
Diagnosis: a partially torn patella tear - not all that uncommon for a 6’ 1” basketball player.
This again necessitated a decision. She opted to prioritize health over pushing through pain.
She received a platelet-rich plasma injection into the tear. The doctor also gave her a scope and took out some cartilage.
Offseason practices commenced and, as captain, Kathryn wanted to support her teammates. So every day she arrived and just sat on the bench while wearing her brace.
“She maintained her leadership and involvement with the team…she didn’t miss a single pick up,” teammate Ana Dorta said.
She could not participate if she wanted to have a chance to play her senior season, she had to focus on her health. She could not try to push through the pain.