Visualizing a life without softball helped Courtney Gano realize her Team USA dream
The questions were delivered gently, but the words landed with the force of a sledgehammer. Courtney Gano was losing another season of softball, this time to illness, and Washington coach Heather Tarr was raising some painful possibilities.
What is your backup plan? Tarr searched for a connection point. What do you want to do outside of softball?
"Well, last week I was our starting catcher," Gano recalled thinking during the conversation four years ago. "What do you mean what do I want to do?"
This week Gano, 25, will play for the United States in the Japan Cup in Takasaki City, an annual tournament that takes on new importance as Team USA builds toward the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. On a 20-player American roster that includes former Olympians, Gano made the national team through an open tryout this past winter.
It has been a good year for American softball. The U.S. won a world championship, qualified for softball's Olympic return in two years and welcomed back to the fold iconic figures Monica Abbott and Cat Osterman, who recently ended her retirement to play in 2020. But as the 2018 schedule comes to a close, nobody can claim a better year than Gano.
Confronted with those questions from Tarr, Gano wrestled with what a world without softball would look like. She found peace of mind in those deliberations, peace to cross that bridge when she came to it. But Gano isn't crossing yet.
"I feel like if you still have passion burning inside, you've got to keep going with it," Gano said.
Gano was almost literally born into the sport. The daughter of former NCAA All-American and Team USA pitcher Rhonda Wheatley, Gano spent big parts of her childhood in the softball facility her mom and stepdad ran in California. She assembled the kind of résumé that made her one of college softball's prized recruits, all-league honors at the highest levels of California's scholastic softball and a stellar club career with the powerhouse Corona Angels.
She started almost all of Washington's games as either a shortstop or third baseman when she was a freshman in 2012, but a hand injury forced her to redshirt what would have been her sophomore season. By the time Gano returned to the field in 2014, the Huskies had infield depth, including current U.S. teammate Ali Aguilar at shortstop. What they desperately needed was help behind the plate. Ever the athlete, Gano put on the catching gear.
Yet as that season progressed, something felt off. First, she noticed her toes kept going numb. She wrote it off as a consequence of squatting behind the plate cutting off circulation. It was harder to explain away the loss of equilibrium, the sensation of rounding first base on a hit and catching herself just before she tripped. Her swing slowed noticeably. Then finally she hit a ball in practice and simply couldn't run. A month-and-a-half into the season, she couldn't play.
An answer for why she couldn't play would take two months and a battery of tests to determine. At one point during those months, still with no diagnosis, doctors suggested visiting a psychologist. The longer she went without an answer, the more it felt some doubted her questions.
"That was kind of hard for me," Gano said. "It was like how can you guys even think that -- I guess when they can't find anything, that's what they resort to. But I knew."
Finally a visit to a new neurologist led to the diagnosis of chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP), a related-but-rarer relative of Guillain-Barre syndrome in which damage to nerves leads to "gradually increasing sensory loss and weakness associated with loss of reflexes." (The GBS-CIDP Foundation estimates the number of newly diagnosed cases of CIDP each year at 10 to 20 per million people.) Gano responded to intravenous immune globulin treatment, but it took months of sessions that could each last more than five hours.
All the while, Husky Softball Stadium sat just across the street from her during those visits to UW Medical Center.
"Sometimes I'd go to practice right after and just watch them and sometimes just go to sleep in the locker room," Gano recalled. "It was kind of a crazy time for me."
The storybook ending should have come when she returned in 2015 as a fourth-year junior and led Washington with 18 home runs and 59 RBIs. But softball wasn't done testing her. A month into her fifth and final season, Gano tore her ACL in her left knee. Because her eligibility was about to run out, she waited for the swelling to go down from the initial injury and continued to play. She couldn't play defense. She had to stop at first base on just about any hit. But she could hit -- until she tried to take second early in conference play and tore the meniscus in her left knee.
Surgery to repair the ligaments and meniscus ended her NCAA softball career.
It would not, she decided, end her time on the diamond.
In the low moments of her illness, she thought about those seeds that Tarr planted. What was there other than softball? Gano took more time to enjoy her family. She realized she loved working with kids and thought about ways to follow that path, perhaps in coaching -- in addition to her mom's background, her dad is a high school football coach.
"I know softball does not define me," Gano said. "If I didn't have softball I would still have my identity. I think that moment created that for me."
She didn't need softball for validation. Which ultimately freed her to love it even more.
After a second surgery on the same knee to clean out residue, she went to Italy to play professionally in 2017. For a while she was the only American on her team, and she played for the fun of it and wandered around Europe during her time off. It was a very different way to experience the sport compared to the high-pressure world of California travel teams or the Pac-12. A devoutly religious person, she was at peace.
"I know exactly why I play and who I play for and who is really judging me when I play," Gano said. "It was different in college. I put a lot of pressure on myself in college, especially being injured and coming back and feeling like I had something to prove."
Yet she still had something she wanted to prove to herself. She pestered people at USA Softball for information about the tryouts open to any athletes not among more than 50 formally invited to national team selection camp. She paid her own way to Florida to participate this past December. The tryout spanned only a day, barely enough time for each player to get a handful of swings and some defensive reps. It was enough to earn an invite to the main selection camp.
"I felt so confident," Gano said. "Before going into it, I agreed with myself that whatever happened, I'm not going to let it affect me for the next at-bat. It's not going to help me. If I go in super stressed or doubting myself, it's just going to make everything worse."
I feel like if you still have passion burning inside, you've got to keep going with it.Courtney Gano
She ultimately made the roster of USA Softball's secondary team, which traveled to Japan for a series of games in June and played the primary U.S. team in the International Cup in California before the latter group traveled to Japan for the WBSC Women's Softball World Championship.
Now, with those teams condensed into one for the Japan Cup, she finds herself part of the best roster in the sport. And given her power and defensive versatility, particularly her ability to catch, she is every bit a contender for one of the coveted 15 spots on the Olympic roster in 2020.
A great many more people will be introduced to a good story if she does.
"The more you get to know Courtney, and the more time you invest in that relationship, the more she gives back," said Sammy Marshall, a teammate with the Chicago Bandits of National Pro Fastpitch (NPF). "I think she's an amazing person. She's a goofy one, she's fun to be around. She's just a cool person."
Already signed for a second season with the Bandits, Gano will spend the months until next summer as a volunteer assistant coach at Northwestern. She will also attend the selection camp for the 2019 national team roster -- this time as an invitee.
Eventually she will move on to a life beyond softball. What will that hold? She has her answer.
"I'm not stressing about it," Gano said. "I just feel confident with who I am and what makes me happy."