April 19, 2010

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Through Illness and Injury, UNC's Taylor Endures

by Powell Latimer | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

North Carolina attacker Kristen Taylor suffers from a combination of celiac disease and postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), a condition that resulted in on-field blackouts before she was diagnosed.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Kristen Taylor hates waiting rooms.

It's the smell — the mixture of sanitizer and musty papers — and the bad memories of uncertainty. Memories of the two years that North Carolina's senior attacker spent in doctors' offices with the same quiet music and the same magazines, wondering which doctor is this? Why am I here? What is wrong with me?

But Taylor got her answer, and she's again pacing the Tar Heels, who are likely to become the No. 1 team in the nation following Sunday's win over Northwestern -- a win that snapped the Wildcats' 41-game winning streak and brought Taylor's strange journey full circle.

*****

On Feb. 17, 2007, Taylor played her first game in a North Carolina uniform.

It seemed to be the fulfillment of Taylor's tremendous potential. High school rivals described the Taylor sisters as "it girls," and the younger Taylor sister certainly fit that mold. She won two state titles in lacrosse at Fayetteville-Manlius (N.Y.) High School and was all-state in cross country. Taylor came from a lacrosse family. Both her parents played at Cornell and her older sister, Kelly, went to UNC a year ahead of her.

Generously listed at 5-foot-5, Taylor used her slight frame as motivation, honed in backyard lacrosse brawls with her older, bigger sister.

"It was always very competitive," Taylor said. "There would be some sort of crying somewhere."

From those competitions, Taylor developed an intense and overriding drive. Later in her senior year of high school, her mother took her aside and told her that, since Taylor was a successful distance runner, she could pursue that as well. Taylor's response?

"Mom, come on."

Taylor always knew what her next step was. She would go to college and play lacrosse. She even almost eschewed North Carolina, where her sister played already, to make her own name.

But on a chilly day in February of 2007, Taylor saw Christina Juras score in double overtime to beat Northwestern, the No. 1 team in the nation, and her collegiate career had officially begun.

She immediately took to North Carolina's team. She didn't mind the bruises that UNC's senior defenders gave her in practice — she'd just get up and attack again.

"I had always been a very driven person," Taylor said. "I liked being aorund people who were very driven and weren't going to let other people get in the way of getting somewhere."

Taylor worked her way into a starting attacker by the end of the season. She blistered through the ACC tournament with 10 goals in three games, and scored 14 goals in the postseason. She notched five goals twice in games that season and led UNC with 43 goals on the year.

But that summer, things started to go wrong.

*****

Taylor and her sister both contracted viral meningitis in the summer of 2007. Taylor chafed, because it delayed her progress towards her latest goal — making the U.S. Developmental team. 

But Taylor's body kept going haywire. The fatigue of meningitis never went away, though doctors said that her body was clear of the disease. Taylor kept playing, annoyed by the fatigue. She started losing weight, but didn't think much of it. 

That winter, Taylor tried to play it off when she started blacking out during the day, if only for just a few seconds when she shifted position rapidly. 

"I didn't know where these were coming from," she said. I'd be walking and everything would be black."

By the start of 2008, Taylor said she was blacking out about 15 times a day, including when she bent down for ground balls. She could play that off too; just slow down or keep running straight. Nobody would be the wiser.

And while her coach Jenny Levy knew of Taylor's health issues, Taylor tried to hide the on-the-field blackouts. She'd fight through it.

Kelly Taylor was one of the few who could tell when her kid sister was staring at blackness.

"If I moved at all, Kelly would be able to tell," the elder Taylor said. "And she'd say, 'You're blacking out.' I'd say somthing like 'Yeah, so?'"

After the blackouts came numbness in her legs and feet, and doctors discovered a white lesion in Taylor's brain. Doctors told her she had everything from mononucleosis to West Nile virus to multiple sclorosis. She went to doctors in New York and at UNC. Taylor had two spinal taps, an iron infusion and at one point was taking around 25 pills a day. Taylor even stayed home from school in the winter semester of 2008.

For Taylor, it was maddening. She'd been all about her goals for so long, always looking for the next hurdle to clear. But this was a hurdle she couldn't even see, much less clear.

"I just want to know what I have. I want to know how I'm going to fix it, and I want to know when I'm getting better," Taylor said. "And no one could tell me that." 

In January 2009, Taylor started a mental clock counting down to the season. As the pressure to get back into shape to play mounted, so did Taylor's frustration. She even wished for an injury, something like a broken leg, a hurdle she could overcome by rehabbing.

Taylor's on-field production suffered as well.

"She knew what she could do, but physically she couldn't do it," Kelly Taylor said. "[Coach Levy] didn't know half the time that Kristen was blacking out on the field."

Kristen Taylor scored just five goals in her first nine games and finished the 2008 season with just 32 goals. Kelly Taylor went to every hospital appointment she could, and saw the strain it put on her kid sister.

"It was so hard, because I so badly wanted to fix if for her," Kelly Taylor said.

Kristen Taylor played every game in 2009, scoring 37 goals as she slowly built up her strength. While she wasn't the same player as the freshman who sliced apart opposing defenses, Taylor was a key part of a UNC team that made the first national championship game in program history.

But Northwestern tore apart UNC in that title game, 21-7. Taylor separated her shoulder and suffered a concussion on a hard collision early in the second half. She spent the waning moments of the game on the sideline, unable to do anything about the thrashing on the field.

"We got embarrassed," Taylor said. "I think that's hard to let go of." 

*****

This winter, UNC was playing in it's annual preseason tournament. Taylor's family was in town to see her play. Midway through one of the games, Kelly Taylor turned to her parents.

"Krit's back," she said.

Taylor has her diagnosis: a combination of celiac disease and postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS).

Now that she knows what the hurdle is, she's nearly done scaling it.

Taylor knows the feeling of loss of control that UNC experienced last Memorial Day in the title game. She's spent the last two years feeling the same way. But Taylor said she gained perspective in the last two years.

"The doctors asked, 'Why are you trying to get back and play lacrosse? Why are you doing all this to play a sport?'" Taylor said. "It wasn't about playing a sport. It was about getting back to full strength for my life."  

Taylor certainly seems so thus far in the season. UNC is 13-1, and Taylor's 32 goals scored are second-most on the team. That includes a goal and an assist in Sunday's 18-16 upset of Northwestern. Last June's beating was her mind.

"It was a kind of helpless feeling where nothing goes right," Taylor said before the game. "But that will make us even more excited to play them again."

It's a rush Taylor will never again take for granted.


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