Katie Collier was having a bad day a couple of weeks ago, the kind that many college students could relate to. "It was all little stuff," the University of Washington sophomore said. "Nothing that important, but it was a rough day."
She found herself flipping through her journal from three years ago on that same day, back when she was in the middle of daily chemotherapy treatments to cure a rare form of leukemia and trying to push through her senior year of high school basketball.
"I hadn't read those [entries] in at least a year," Collier said. "And when I read it, I thought, 'Wow, life is not bad. It's pretty good.'"
It's not hard for Collier to find perspective.
"We all have days when school isn't going right or something else isn't going right and you think you don't want to be here, and [then I look] back on those days, when I wasn't physically able to be there and all I wanted was to be healthier and stronger," she said. "It makes me appreciate how great it is to be healthy. And it shows me I can push through anything."
Collier, a 6-foot-3 forward, is indeed healthy and strong. In some ways, she's still regaining her strength, not only from the lost year of her cancer treatment, but from the year that followed when she suffered a torn ACL in a summertime pickup game as she prepared to play her first college basketball season. She redshirted 2012-13, averaged 13 minutes per game in 2013-14, and is averaging 3.0 points and 2.3 rebounds this season.
"This is the first year she's played with no tape on her knee or something nagging her here or there. Her best basketball is still coming," Washington coach Mike Neighbors said. "She's having a fine sophomore year. I know people think she should be doing more. I hate to say that, but you know they do. But they don't get it. She's going to have a good basketball career."
Collier is playing a little more than 10 minutes a game for the 18-7 Huskies, who have looked like an NCAA-caliber team most of this season. Her reserve role for Washington might obscure the fact that as a high school senior at Seattle Christian, she was one of the best players in the country, a McDonald's All-American being courted by several Division I programs.
In fact, she was on her recruiting visit to Washington when her life-defining odyssey began. She was in Seattle, on her official visit, and she hadn't been feeling well. Her parents thought that the recruiting process was starting to wear her down, that once she was done, she would get some rest and feel better. They thought she might have tonsillitis.
It was a fall Saturday morning and Neighbors, then the Huskies' lead assistant coach, was at Husky Stadium, preparing a tailgate breakfast for the recruits and their families before the Washington football game -- with help from Collier's parents, Mark and Ann, who live in Covington, Washington, about 30 miles southeast of Seattle -- when the call came. Her parents took her to a local hospital to get checked. At 3:45 the next morning, Neighbors' cell phone buzzed with a text.
"It said, 'Coach, it's not tonsillitis, it's leukemia,'" Neighbors remembers. "Nothing in life prepares you for that."
Collier was diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia, a rare form of the blood cancer.
"It was devastating," said Ann Collier, who had just completed three years of treatment for breast cancer earlier that spring. "And it was so surreal. It's a parent's worst nightmare, and I just kept thinking, 'This doesn't happen to us. This doesn't happen to Katie.' Basically, for a little while, the biggest concern was, 'Is she going to live?'"
The morning after the diagnosis, Neighbors was having brunch with the other recruits and their families when he got another text from Katie.
"She wanted to get into the gym and shooting -- on the same day that she was basically admitted to start chemo. It started that fast," Neighbors said.
Collier received treatments for nearly six months, starting with a daily dose of chemotherapy, in this case, an arsenic drip. During treatment, she was determined to finish her high school basketball career through exhaustion and dehydration. She resumed her basketball career three months after her initial diagnosis.
Ann Collier did not want Katie to play, but she couldn't bring herself to tell her daughter.
"I was sick about it," Ann said. "I would sit on the bench with a stomachache and watch her get tossed to the ground. She would come home full of bruises. I didn't like it, no."
Katie Collier forged through, however, getting support from teammates and classmates, and even opposing players, who would find her after games and even visit her in the hospital.
During one of Collier's "strongest memories" from that time, Seattle Christian was playing rival King's High School. Collier kept needing to sub in and out of the game, leaving the court at timeouts to vomit. When her team won, Collier lapsed in the arms of her older sister, who was an assistant coach.
"I just remember that feeling of fighting for my teammates," said Collier, who played in the McDonald's All-American game in April just two weeks after her treatments ended. "I was trying to act like a normal high schooler and a basketball player. And I'd grown up with most of the girls on the team and I just wanted so badly to play with them and for them."
Ann Collier, who said her daughter "suffered" during that season, has her own memories.
"Chemo beats you up pretty good and her body took a toll," Ann said. "I remember after one game, one of her teammates came to get me. She said, 'Katie needs you, now.' When I got there, she was laying in the opposing team's locker room on the concrete floor, shaking uncontrollably."
Katie wanted badly to begin her college career as well at Washington. But during a July 2012 pick-up game in the Huskies' gym in Seattle, Collier went down with the knee injury that would turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
"It was incredibly discouraging, but my mom and I started talking about it and the truth was, maybe I wasn't ready to come back and play," Collier said. "In a way, maybe that injury was what I needed to stay off the floor. My body needed to heal after all those toxins. But it was incredibly frustrating."
Frustration, however, is nothing compared to laying in a hospital bed every day, having poison pumped into your body.
"There isn't a single day I don't think about that and I will always think about it," Collier said. "I'm forever changed by it."
Washington teammate Heather Corral, who roomed with Collier on that recruiting trip, still worries when Collier gets sick. But never about Collier's attitude.
"Watching her has given me a lot of perspective," said Corral, whose own college career ended prematurely because of injury. "There is life after basketball. She's always one to put on a happy face and make the best of every situation."
Neighbors knows the word inspiring can be overused, but not in Collier's case. He said Collier is a magnet for people. Young players all want to be on her team at summer camp and people flock to her during community events.
"Basketball is important to her, she's an extremely competitive person, and after all she's been through, she's got some toughness, but she sees the game for what it is," Neighbors said. "If for a second I think I'm having a bad day, and I see her, I'm not having a bad day anymore."
Ann Collier, meanwhile, said that she's not sure her daughter would change a thing about the path that led her here.
"You don't know what life is going to hand you," Ann Collier said. "She weathered it and she embraced it, too. For both of us, to go back and undo and not have it happen ... I don't think either of us would skip that part of our life. It makes you look at life differently."