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Caitlin Broadwell used volleyball as motivation to battle back from Graves' disease

Lawrence (Kan.) senior Caitlin Broadwell is honored with the National Guard Inspiration Award

Former high school athletes often speak about what could have been. How they could have been all-state or gone to a major Division I program.

PHOTOS: Caitlin's Inspiration Ceremony

If only some medical malady – the bum knee, the bad shoulder, that pesky sprained ankle – didn’t sabotage their career.

You will never hear that from Lawrence (Kan.) High School senior Caitlin Broadwell, whose volleyball career undercut by health issues.

“I’m so thankful to be able to play,” Broadwell said. “It just taught me to not take playing volleyball or being able to exercise for granted. I am very lucky to be playing volleyball, the sport that I love.”

Broadwell’s positive attitude and perseverance is being honored by USA TODAY High School Sports and the Army National Guard with the Inspiration Award, presented to 15 student-athletes across the nation.

Broadwell found her passion for volleyball by following in the footsteps of her older sister Kelsey. By the time she entered high school, Broadwell had caught up to her sister and was playing alongside her on the varsity team.

As a freshman, Broadwell started at middle hitter. This was quite a feat considering that prior to the 2010 season, freshmen were not allowed to play on the varsity team. She posted 92 kills, 34 blocks, and 10 digs for the Lions that year.

“From day one, I knew they were both special athletes, volleyball players, and young ladies,” Lawrence head coach Stephanie Magnuson said of the sisters. “Both worked tremendously hard, played with an immeasurable amount of heart and were the type of players any coach would be thrilled to have.”

But Broadwell’s rise to a become varsity volleyball prodigy hit a snag after her first season. During practices and tournaments for her club team, the Topeka Impact, her coordination and strength dipped, and as a result, so did her productivity. Her heart rate also spiked irregularly.

On the advice of a teammate’s mother, Mike and Terri Broadwell took their daughter to her physician, who soon referred her to Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City (Mo.). There, doctors eventually diagnosed her with an overactive thyroid.

“I couldn’t do anything for two months,” Broadwell said. “That was hard but it was also kind of a sigh of relief that it wasn’t me, it wasn’t my fault that I wasn’t doing well.”

With medicine, Broadwell managed the condition. Throughout her sophomore season her play continued to improve and when she moved to outside hitter as a junior, she blossomed into one of the area’s best players, recording 268 kills, 40 blocks, 56 service aces, and 145 digs. But not long after the season - in which she was named honorable mention All-State for Class 6A - Broadwell suffered a serious setback.

Although she exercised daily and had an admittedly healthy appetite, Broadwell could not gain weight. Worse yet, she endured several unexplained spells of fatigue. That March, while playing in a club tournament, Broadwell’s battle with her overactive thyroid came to a head. Lethargic, unable to catch her breath, and again battling an exceptionally high heart rate, she was forced to sit out a major tournament.

After more consults and blood work, Broadwell’s physicians determined that she had Graves’ disease. Essentially, her immune system was attacking her thyroid gland, which then overproduced hormones, causing these debilitating symptoms.

Immediately, she had to suspend her sports career, which not only cost her the rest of the club season, but also put her high school future in doubt.

“It was painful to watch, because volleyball was her life,” said Broadwell’s mother. “There were goals she wanted to reach as a senior. She worked for years, she wanted to make certain things, and then all of a sudden this was taken from her. It was hard as a parent to watch her. But yet, she was never down. Never. You would not know that she was going through this. She stayed positive, strong, prayed a lot.”

That May, Broadwell underwent radiation to slow down her overproduction of hormones, but during the next few months there was little progress. So last August, thanks in part to her father’s tireless research, Broadwell had surgery to remove her thyroid gland. The objective was to completely stop her body’s thyroid hormone production.

After the successful procedure, doctors recommended that Broadwell ease her way back into sports. But within three weeks, she was back on the court with her Lawrence High teammates for the 2013 season.

“She was really motivated to get back on the court and get better and catch up on what she missed,” sophomore teammate Caroline Dykes said. “She was just rusty at the beginning but after a few weeks she wasback in her groove.”

That groove resulted in 198 kills, 36 blocks, 32 service aces, and a career-high 211 digs.

Still, despite her remarkable recovery and the reputation she had forged prior to the health setback, most major college volleyball programs stopped recruiting her once they learned of her medical condition. 

“That was kind of a blessing in disguise,” Broadwell said, “because it narrowed down my options of colleges. It wasn’t a good thing at the time because I wanted to go to some big Division I school, the name that everyone knew. But I was kind of led to Nebraska-Kearney.”

One of the people who guided Broadwell to the University Nebraska-Kearney was the school’s head volleyball coach Rick Squires, who wanted her for the program, regardless of the Graves’ disease diagnosis.

“We had every reason to believe she would come through her situation and work her way back to being a strong, physical athlete,” Squires said. “A lot of it had to do with Caitlin and her family. They showed no signs of doubt that she would come back strong.”

Reassurance of what her post-surgery performance can be came not only when Broadwell returned to volleyball, but also when she started to excel on the school’s track and field team.

“We don’t know how good she can be,” Broadwell’s father said. “The [Lawrence High] track coach contacted Terri and said, ‘Wow, she’s starting to run speeds we’ve never seen before.’ Caitlin’s never been a runner, and now she’s starting to hang with the 200-meter runners, the one’s that won states last year. The sickness came through her adolescence so we don’t know how strong, how big, and how good she’s going to get.”

Nebraska-Kearney’s opponents in the MIAA conference will likely find out soon, starting in the fall of 2014. 



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