DePaul's Colleen Smith a setter, a survivor and a dreamer
It's 15 minutes before game time, and Colleen Smith is at the net, front and center for the DePaul volleyball team. The 24-year-old Illinois native's got gum in her mouth and a smile on her face, and she's helping her hitters get in some warm-up swings. Chew, smile, set, repeat.
Five years ago, on a different campus, the former high school All-American setter, a freshman at Indiana, kept a different routine. Cough, ache, puke, rest.
Smith's life was in danger, not to mention her volleyball career. Her body was attacking itself. She was vomiting blood. Her red blood cell count was half of what it should be. Her lungs collected fluid.
Doctors at IU made a rare diagnosis: granulomatosis with polyangiitis, also known as Wegener's granulomatosis -- a disease that drastically slows the flow of blood through the kidneys, lungs, throat and nose. After that came blood transfusions, chemotherapy and dozens of prescriptions.
But even as a freshman lying in a hospital bed, Smith plotted her return to volleyball. She thought about it as a sophomore, too, when the Hoosiers' coaching staff told her they no longer had a scholarship spot for her. She thought about it each time she was rejected by a program that wooed her as a transfer because the doctors didn't want to take on the risk of a Wegener's patient.
Those five years led to this moment: Senior Day. Nov. 13. Her final home game at DePaul.
Now third in program history in assists, Smith is still receiving chemotherapy treatments -- just once every six months now -- and is considering a professional career overseas.
"I just love that winning feeling," she said. "It was important for me to get back to that."
On this November day, as she flicks the ball behind her to a streaking hitter, she thinks back on all those battles won. Her eyes are on the next pass, well before the hitter's spike smacks the ground.
Chew, smile, set, repeat. She savors this moment. It is a gift.
Wegener's is rare. That much we know. A 2009 study in Arthritis & Rheumatology estimates that it occurs in about one in every 125,000 people. Others believe it goes widely underdiagnosed and is far more common. Either way, a statistician would tell you the odds of an elite NCAA athlete having Wegener's are minuscule.
"I feel like it's so easy to give up on your dreams and your goals," Smith said, "but I knew that volleyball was such a huge impact on my life, and it has truly shaped me into the person that I am today."
There are little reminders of what she's gone through at every DePaul home game. Her parents and sisters, who live in the Chicago suburbs, know just how precious each moment on the court is for Smith and never miss a match. She has a red bow, the color chosen for autoimmune disease and Wegener's awareness, in her hair, and she and her teammates have bows on their shoes, too. As her career nears its end with one last Big East game Sunday against Butler in Indianapolis, there's this, too: a single-season program record for wins in the Big East.
Before Smith tallied the first of her 4,185 assists (and counting) as a Blue Demon, coach Nadia Edwards was well equipped to bring Smith in despite her disease. Rush University Medical Center in Chicago provided a primary care location that would suit Smith's needs, and DePaul gave Smith a chance to continue competing in a big conference while staying close to home.
"We knew the talent that she possessed, but every single day she stepped on the court, she gave us her all," Edwards said. "She's been the anchor of our team for the last four years."
Those four years weren't without obstacles, either, on and off the court. She endured a 3-27 season her second year with the program. Then, this January, she had a Wegener's flare-up. While at dinner with her family, her mouth filled with blood before spouting from her nose. It took her a few months to get back to playing.
"I was a little surprised because she was doing very well, and she was on medication," said Dr. Roger Rodby, a nephrology specialist at Rush who has worked with Smith the past four years. "Of all the diseases I take care of in the autoimmune spectrum, this one's the toughest. It's the one that's hardest to get to go away, and it's the most likely to come back."
But she came back, too, and it's hard to imagine it going any differently. Smith is eternally positive, and playing volleyball trumps all ailments. Earlier in the season, she took an eight-hour chemo treatment on a Monday so she could recover and play DePaul's two weekend road matches. She slipped in and out of sleep with her dad and one of her sisters by her side. The picture she took during the treatment, though, belied the difficulties it presented. She gave a beaming smile with a thumbs-up, the Chicago skyline in the background.
Somehow, Smith didn't miss a match this season.
"It's just crazy to think back when I was at Indiana that, basically, a lot of people thought I was never gonna be able to play again," she said. "I really do believe that everything happens for a reason, and I found my home here at DePaul. It definitely worked out."
Her next home might be in Europe, where the odds are tougher still. Edwards played professionally and said Smith's talent "isn't even a discussion." She's good enough. It's about finding a team that needs a setter and, again, can accommodate her condition. And, isn't already at the cap for the number of American players allowed on its roster. Her dad, Bubba Smith, wants her to do it, no matter how nervous having his daughter that far away might be.
"But Europe is, that's her dream," he said. "Fulfill it. Because every other dream you've had, you've fulfilled it. That would be something, you know? Jim Valvano, what'd he say that time? Every day, you've got to be able to smile, to cry, and that's a fulfilling day."
Laugh, think, cry, repeat. Smith's familiar with that routine, too.
Smith locks arms with her mom and dad and walks toward her teammates and coaches. The gum is gone, but the smile's still there. The tears and memories have crept in, too. One of her outside hitters, Myah Reed, barely holds in her sobs.
Smith celebrates with DePaul's two other seniors. She hugs about two dozen fans -- friends and family -- in the stands. Then she sits down in the bleachers at McGrath-Phillips Arena, her "home" for the past four years, with that support system surrounding her. Everyone smiles. Cameras flash. There are two games left, but this has a feeling of permanence to it. It's hard not to think of the end.
Smith lets herself do that, briefly. But as usual, her thoughts turn from what's happened to what's next.
"We still have season left," she said.
And whatever else comes after it.