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Leukemia survivor Stenson takes nothing for granted on, off field

SAN DIEGO -- Each time Bailey Stenson sprints toward her spot in the outfield for the University of Washington, she does so as a leukemia survivor. But if that sounds like the sort of thing that defines a person, then it misses the point of Stenson's story.

So let's try it another way.

Every time she takes the field for the Huskies, Stenson also carries the title of her team's undisputed thumb-wrestling champion.

"I proclaimed myself that," the junior utility player explained with a grin registering something between self deprecation and sincere pride. "No one has really ever told me [I'm the champion], but actually, people are like, 'Wow, you're really good for how small your hands are, how little you are.'"

So advanced are her skills in thumb combat, in fact, that she and her boyfriend agreed on a New Year's resolution to stop competing against each other, in the interest of romantic harmony (and the small matter of her beau's persistent claims that she cheats).

Where one description meets the other is where Stenson's story begins -- because while it's one thing to dream of happy endings, it's another to live happy middles.

Beating leukemia didn't ensure Stenson the former. But every time she beats a would-be challenger with her thumb -- or beats out an infield single -- she solidifies her standing as a master of the latter.

Even on a team that has Danielle Lawrie in the circle, Ashley Charters at the plate and aspirations of a championship, that's the most impressive talent on the roster.

"Bailey is just one of those kind of people that is like a once-in-a-lifetime person that you just rarely get a chance to meet," Washington coach Heather Tarr said. "She's always into something; she's got a great personality. She's just random at times and keeps everybody loose. She's got a great, infectious personality, and we love to have her on our team."

Stenson doesn't remember much of the ordeal she went through after being diagnosed with leukemia at 3 years old (she's been in remission for nearly 18 years). But where most might remember hazy snippets of moments like their first bike-riding lesson, Stenson has less pleasant recollections. She remembers the painful spinal taps, 16 in all by her count, which the medical staff assured her were her "back crying," and the toy she got to pick out of a red box as a reward.

"They hurt so bad that I deserved a toy; I probably deserved a car," said Stenson, who grew up in Auburn, Wash.

But in large part, she remembers those years through interactions she has now with her parents, Kim Stenson and Rod Norman, and her grandmother, Bonnie. Never at a loss for words or hesitant with an answer, Bailey nonetheless struggles to fight off tears when she talks about understanding the toll the illness took on everyone involved.

Bailey is just one of those kind of people that is like a once-in-a-lifetime person that you just rarely get a chance to meet.

--Washington softball coach Heather Tarr

"I know it was really hard for [her grandmother] to see me, a 3-year-old kid, telling her, 'Hey, grandma, I'm not going to die anymore,'" Stenson said. "And she was just kind of like, 'Oh my gosh, is that what you thought? You were going to die?'"

Conversations like those were primarily with Kim and Bonnie. It was her mom who persisted when doctors initially misdiagnosed her daughter's illness as one of a number of minor ailments, from an infected bladder to the common cold. And it was her grandmother who was there through the entire ordeal. There have been fewer conversations with her dad, however, who was separated from Kim and not as omnipresent in those years.

There is still reticence in Stenson's voice when it comes to his role -- which is "kind of a touchy subject" -- but Stenson's pursuit of happiness is not the reckless kind one might find in someone harboring old resentments.

"Like in the past, when I've told people about my leukemia, I've never involved [Norman]," Stenson said. "I never even mentioned my dad, as a supporter or anything. But I know that he was there supporting me whenever he could. … He was young, going back to school and kind of trying to figure his life out, didn't have his priorities right. But I know that he really cared about me and stuff."

Embracing life as it happens in the present is something best accomplished by understanding the past without living in it. And so the reticence faded into amused recollection as Stenson recalled that it was her dad who took the lead when she decided she wanted to start playing softball in the third grade. He didn't know much about the game, but he bought videos and books, started up a team and taught her how to pitch -- though she ultimately shifted to the middle infield in high school and then to outfield in college.

One of Stenson's best friends at Washington, Amanda Fleischman, has come to know the family well and sees her teammate as the product of the best of both parents.

"She's like a perfect mixture of the two," Fleischman sad. "Her dad is an awesome guy; he's really into her life right now and he's her No. 1 fan. And he's really funny and she looks a lot like him.

"And then her mom -- people say they're twins, her and her mom. Her mom is really responsible. You know, she raised [Stenson] by herself and had to raise the money and all that stuff. Bailey gets that from her, too, because Bailey gets her stuff done. And she's doing her own stuff here, kind of pioneering her way through life."

Stenson is reluctant to say softball is her foremost passion outside of family and friends, fearing it would mean she's obsessed with the sport. Even though the 2008 All-Pac-10 honorable mention would be happy playing catch, hitting off a tee or simply talking softball every day, she's also the same person who sheepishly admits she didn't know who Heather Tarr was when told the coach was watching her play during a high school game. Like the crafts projects she loves to create and the writing she imagines might one day take the form of a novel or memoir, softball is something best enjoyed for its own sake -- pleasure derived from effort as much as result.

So it was unusual when, after a rough day at the plate against San Diego State on Feb. 14 during the Campbell Cartier Classic, Stenson found herself stressed out over her performance.

"That's not usually my thing," said Stenson, who hit .332 last season. "And so I just took a step back [that] night and was like, 'Why am I playing? I'm playing because it's fun, and I'm playing because this is what I love.'

"Every day, you try and go out and play like it's the national championship. … Like coach Tarr said, 'Don't take any at-bats for granted.'"

The next day, Stenson beat out an infield single in her second plate appearance and drove in a run with a single in her next at-bat in a Washington win against Long Beach State. Heading to the team bus, she was herself, breaking Fleischman's train of thought with a goofy gait.

"I like to call her flamboyant just because she's always laughing," Fleischman said. "… She's just always making people smile."

It turns out Stenson is pretty good at not taking things for granted.

As she put it, "Looking back, it's just kind of like I probably learned how to live life to the fullest and take advantage of all my opportunities."

Graham Hays covers softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.