Anna Wilson, beyond a shadow and a doubt
Sometimes, after she has swished the day's final free throw and composed the closing line of her essay and clinked the last weights of her workout, Anna Wilson will climb behind the wheel of her car and drive. She rarely has a destination in mind, but instead follows her curiosity as a guide. She will pull her black Mercedes E350 out of the driveway and explore the streets of her new home -- Bellevue, Washington -- admiring the pines that seem to touch the sky, the lakes that rest at their base and the snow-capped peaks that tower in relief.
Occasionally, she will merge onto I-90 and head 10 miles west into Seattle, music blaring but her mind unusually quiet. That's when she will see him. Maybe he will pull up alongside her, his image plastered on the side of a bus. Maybe he'll look down from above, sporting a pair of Bose headphones, as she passes a billboard. In Seattle, Russell Wilson is omnipresent. Especially if he's your brother.
It is almost too easy to introduce Anna Wilson as Russell Wilson's little sister. But the link is also impossible to ignore, given all they share. "If I came up with a lot of differences between the two, I'd be making them up," says Harry Wilson, who, at 32, is the oldest of the three siblings.
On Wednesday night, Anna will play in the McDonald's All American Game, capping a senior season in which she led Bellevue High to a state title in her lone year at the school. Last summer, she made the cross-country move from Richmond, Virginia, in part to prepare for the next four years on the West Coast; she will play point guard at Stanford next fall. Such forethought and unbridled drive to succeed is typical of the Wilson clan, and Anna has inherited both qualities in spades. But family played just as crucial a role in that unusual decision to abandon familiar surroundings for her final year of high school. That, too, is the Wilson way.
For many years, life in the Wilson house was exceptionally normal: both parents home for dinner; a hoop in the driveway; church on Sundays. Much has been written about Russell's relationship with his father, Harrison B. Wilson III, a two-sport star at Dartmouth who went on to become a successful lawyer. The wisdom "Harry B" imparted upon his son still resonates today -- the purposefulness, the attention to detail, the desire to lead.
Anna benefited from some of those same lessons, but childhood was a fundamentally different experience for her. More than eight years younger than Russell, she was just 9 when diabetes began to eat away at their father. Harrison could no longer rebound for Anna after dinner as she launched jump shots on the old, steel hoop outside the house. In time, he had to stop coaching her youth teams. Russell went off to college, leaving Anna as the lone child in the house, and she watched her father spend long stints in the hospital, lose his vision and have his leg amputated. Her mother, Tammy, travelled internationally for work, so Anna learned to administer her father's insulin and coaxed him into downing 10 pills each day and night. On several occasions, she and her mother would find him lying on his bed, not breathing, leading to a panicked call to the paramedics.
"They had to resuscitate him," Anna says. She fiddles with the silver cross that hangs from her neck and glances down at the table in the center of Russell's dining room. As she looks back up, her eyes blink slightly faster. "It was a frequent thing."
At school, Anna's mind would wander to her father's hospital room, and her grades suffered. She was a month shy of her 12th birthday when her father passed away in 2010, the day after Russell was drafted by the Colorado Rockies. Russell was home at the time, and visited Anna in her room with the somber news. "I'm going to help you," he told her. "I'm going to take care of you."
And he did. But he wasn't her father. "I think that's the huge difference between Russell's relationship with my dad," Anna says. "He was older, and he and my dad could have more serious talks. I've had a lot of cool experiences, and sometimes I wonder what my dad would say."
As Anna was adjusting to life without her father, the world was discovering her brother -- as a college star, a Pro Bowler and eventually a Super Bowl champion. Russell already was a legend at the Collegiate School back in Richmond; his NFL success only swelled his alma mater's attachment. When Anna was a sophomore, the school held Russell Wilson Day. Students were decked out in Seahawks gear. Fatheads lined the walls. The students saw a hero; Anna just saw her brother. "Here she is walking to chemistry class and everyone has her brother's jersey on," Harry says. "How do you react to that?"
She wrote about that experience in her application to Stanford:
"Since I could walk, I have lived in a dark space produced by a body that intercepts the light of my personal fulfillment. My brother is the body, but he is not at fault. His fame and accomplishments unintentionally created the dark space composed of the inescapable expectation of onlookers. The dark space is his shadow in which I have lived."
Being a teenage girl is hard enough. Imagine going through those years as the sister of a celebrity. "I don't trust everyone," Anna admits, "because of certain circumstances with my brother, and people just wanting to get close to me because of him."
But Anna has never resented Russell. Far from it. As she grew, so did their connection. You can hear it in her voice, see it in her mannerisms. She often repeats his mantras, the ones he learned from his father like "the separation is in the preparation." She talks openly about how her faith guides her and how basketball provides an opportunity to make a larger impact on the world around her. Listening to her describe the role of a point guard -- lead, share the ball, inspire your teammates -- feels almost like a recording of Russell talking about the job of a quarterback.
It was Russell who sent Anna to Stanford's basketball camp as a ninth grader, where she fell in love with the school and became obsessed with earning admission. And late in 2014, it was Russell who contacted Leah Krautter, the girls' basketball coach at Bellevue. "It was December, and I got an email from Russell," says Krautter, a lifelong Seahawks fan whose Facebook photo features her 2-year-old son sporting a No. 3 jersey. "I thought that maybe someone was spamming me."
But sure enough, Russell, Anna and Tammy showed up at a game and chatted with Krautter about the program. It had been seven years since brother and sister had lived together, and both wanted to seize one last opportunity before Anna would go off to college. Besides, a year on the West Coast could help Anna acclimate to Stanford. But Tammy needed convincing to leave her job and her home, and after that initial meeting, Krautter never heard back from the Wilsons. She assumed they had decided to stay in Virginia. Then, about a week before school started this past summer, Krautter got a call from her athletic director. Bellevue would be adding an All-American point guard.
Anna moved to Bellevue two weeks ahead of Tammy and bunked with Russell. They shared early-morning workouts and evening meals. Russell rebounded for her and she helped care for his dogs. One afternoon, Anna and a friend were tossing a football in the yard when she shrieked. Russell came rushing out of the house to find his sister sprawled on the grass. Red liquid seeped from her nose. As Russell worried about how to tell his mother that Anna had broken her nose on his watch, she held up her hands, which were covered in ketchup. Russell chased her around the house.
Enough about Russell Wilson's sister. Let's talk about Anna.
It was early this past fall when the Bellevue girls' basketball team gathered for its first open-gym workout. The Wolverines had reached the state semifinals the previous season; Anna didn't even know some of her teammates' names. Yet a few minutes into the scrimmage, she called time and brought the group together in a huddle. Everyone has to play harder, she told them. The guards need to spread out more.
It's not hard to imagine the reaction in most gyms. But instead of rolling their eyes and wondering who the new girl thought she was, Anna's teammates voted her captain a couple of weeks later.
"When I first met her, I was a little intimidated," says Tatiana Streun, one of the team's tri-captains. "She is very strong, she knows what she wants, and you just have to be a big enough person to handle it. There is something about her that just brings out our competitiveness and encourages us to do our best."
That is Anna's gift. But as her teammates came to know her, they discovered a different side to their new point guard. "She really is goofy," says Quinessa Caylao-Do, her backcourt mate, who also transferred to Bellevue as a senior. She has been known to imitate her teammates' dance moves in less-than-flattering fashion. Once, her Spanish teacher gave her a pie in school and Anna convinced Streun that she was about to feed it to her. Then she smashed it on Streun's face. She listens to an unhealthy amount of Justin Bieber, especially when she is behind the wheel of her car.
Still, those trips in her Mercedes are the only journeys she will take without a clear plan. There was another reason she moved to Washington, albeit one she feels less comfortable discussing: She wanted a better basketball experience. Collegiate School didn't offer the same level of competition as she found out West; to reach her goals, she needed to play with and against more talented players.
"I think she felt like she wasn't progressing as quickly as she wanted to, certainly at the beginning of [AAU] seasons," Harry says. "She felt like she had to catch up to the speed of the games. I think she really wanted to get a chance, when she goes to Stanford, to make sure her trajectory is on the right path athletically."
The move worked. A month ago, Anna led Bellevue to the 3A state championship, capping an undefeated season in which she averaged 15.3 points, 4.6 assists and 3.2 steals per game. Anna's job was to serve as the team's connective tissue, to get everyone the ball in the right spot, to keep the pace high, to keep the offense flowing. And just when the girl guarding her might begin to wonder what all the hype was about for a 5-foot-8 guard with a slight frame, she'd bust a 3-pointer in her face. The next trip down, Anna would cross her over to get into the lane, where she'd Eurostep around another defender and finish with a scoop layup, the motion impeccably fluid and efficient. And then that opponent would learn the same lesson as so many before her: Don't get between Anna Wilson and her goals.
Following Anna's freshman year, she was one of the last cuts from USA Basketball's U16 world championship team. The next summer, she returned to Colorado Springs for the U17 trials "and she had a plan," Harry says. "She knew who she needed to beat out. I got the impression that she highlighted two or three girls that she was going to need to work harder than in order to make the team. And lo and behold, she did exactly that and earned a spot on the squad."
When Anna visited Stanford as a high school freshman, she was surprised when the coaching staff asked about her grades rather than her jump shot. She had always assumed that basketball was all that mattered in recruiting. By this point, Anna already had scholarship offers from Maryland and Wake Forest, but Stanford's coaches told her that she was too young to receive an offer, and that they would need to monitor her academic progress. Instead of causing her to dismiss the Cardinal, that knowledge became motivation. "I went to my mom and said I'm going to do anything I have to do, academically, to get into Stanford," Anna says.
So when she got back to Virginia, she signed up for every AP class she could fit into her schedule. She started studying late into the night or, if she had an evening workout planned, she would rise at 4 the next morning to finish her homework. According to Tammy, at one point Anna kept three separate journals -- one for her personal goals, one devoted to her athletic pursuits and one that tracked her athletic accomplishments. "She's the ultimate perfectionist," Russell says.
Tammy can only marvel -- and chuckle -- at Anna's meticulousness. "Right now, she's working on this English paper," Tammy said over the phone earlier this month. "She will keep working on it until she gets every line to the best of her ability. The time she takes to write that first paragraph is amazing to me. She has to get that first paragraph just right."
It's a fine line, Anna knows, between striving for perfection and punishing yourself for failing to meet an impossible standard. She knows she is hard on herself -- probably too hard -- but that doesn't mean she is willing to change, not when there is so much left to accomplish.
"Growing up in a family that's had a quarterback, myself a point guard, leading has always just been something in our family," Anna says. "Not just in terms of sports, but life. If you want to do something special, you have to figure out a way to make other people believe that it's special. I don't know how exactly to explain it, but you can control what influences other people."
Anna thinks she might like to study environmental sciences at Stanford, the result of a transformative class she took at Collegiate. One of the primary themes of that course was the allocation of resources in developed and underdeveloped countries: Why don't nations with abundant resources use them more efficiently, particularly when they could aid those less fortunate? That conundrum resonated for Anna.
"I correlate that to your gift," Anna says. "If you have a gift, you don't want to abuse it or inefficiently use it, to where you're not cultivating your gift, not perfecting your craft. I don't know the full capacity of my gift. But I hope I don't have a cap or a limit on it."