One was the size of a grapefruit, another as large as a baby’s head.
The smooth, benign tumors are called fibroids, and three of them were lodged inside the uterus of U.S. women’s basketball star Seimone Augustus. Doctors first noticed them when she was a college student at Louisiana State, but they were smaller then, almost too small to be noticed, and they weren’t growing, so Augustus left them alone.
But by January 2010, one of them had grown larger — much, much larger. Augustus tried to postpone their removal until after the WNBA season, but three days before Minnesota Lynx training camp began, she felt a surging pain in her abdomen. She could barely walk and was taken to a Minneapolis hospital. Emergency surgery removed the tumors April 24.
“Very tough situation,” Augustus said. “It’s tough for any woman.”
But the 28-year-old guard has flourished in the two years since. She guided the Lynx to their first WNBA championship in 2011 and was named Finals MVP in the process.
Now she is one of the cornerstones of a U.S. Olympic squad bound for London looking to capture its fifth consecutive gold medal.
“She’s someone who you may not assume is as battle-tested as she is,” said Maya Moore, a fellow Olympian and Augustus‘ teammate in Minnesota. “It just makes me so proud of her every time I see her succeed, just being able to share in her story.”
It’s a story that begins with a Sports Illustrated cover in 1999, where a 14-year-old Augustus was pictured with the caption: “Is She the Next Michael Jordan?” Before entering her sophomore year of high school, the Baton Rouge, La., native already was receiving national recognition and being touted as one of the sport’s most promising prospects.
Her ensuing rise to stardom was as straightforward as they come. Augustus excelled at nearby LSU, where she was a three-time All-American and twice was named national Player of the Year. She was the consensus No. 1 draft pick in 2006 and immediately proved her worth, leading the Lynx in scoring and winning Rookie of the Year.
But it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Her individual success couldn’t save Minnesota from consecutive 10-24 seasons, and the following year she suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament. The challenges were piling on, and it didn’t stop there.
After a year of intense rehabilitation, Augustus finally thought her injured knee had healed. She was participating in one of her first workouts since the injury when the abdominal pain of her tumors struck. While the Mayo Clinic claims as many as three in four women may have uterine fibroids at some point in their lives, they are rarely this massive or painful.
“It’s the equivalent of a woman giving birth, like the pain, as far as how rapid it is and how painful it is,” Augustus explained. “But you know, once it was removed it was mostly just letting the wound heal and waiting to get back out on the court.”
Augustus was instrumental in Team USA’s gold medal run at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. But when coach Geno Auriemma saw her practice after the surgeries, she was a full 20 pounds over her playing weight and lacked the shiftiness that has made her a three-time WNBA All-Star.
“When I saw her, I thought she might not come back,” he said. “She may not be able to overcome this.”
Fortunately for the Lynx and Team USA, she did. After a difficult 2010 season, Augustus returned to form in Minnesota’s championship run and led the team in scoring in five of its eight playoff games. She was invited to a U.S. women’s basketball training camp in May 2011 and blew Auriemma away.
“I’m most proud of [Augustus] of anybody else that’s on the team right now,” said Auriemma, Connecticut’s coach since 1985. “She worked so hard to rehab her knee, she worked so hard to overcome some of the injuries she had and some of the illnesses that she had … when she showed up at training camp in Las Vegas, it was like a different person. How could we not take her, you know?”
Last weekend Augustus was one of five American women to participate in a skills clinic for daughters of military members at D.C. Armory. She led the ball-handling station and showed off the crossover that teammate Lindsay Whalen called “unbelievable” and “unmatched.” Throughout the clinic, a wide smile never left her face.
Doctors had to remove Augustus‘ uterus as part of the fibroid surgery two years ago, preventing her from ever carrying a child of her own. She still is interested in having children, most likely through in vitro fertilization, but conceded the realization that she can’t have them in a traditional way has been difficult.
“It’s tough for me,” Augustus said. “But you know, science has come a long way, and I’m able to do other things … it’s still possible for me to have kids, and I will go down that journey [one day].”
That day will have to wait until after the London Olympics. Right now, that’s the only journey Augustus has in mind. Injuries and illness deterred her playing career, but they could only keep her off the court for so long.
“Coach Auriemma and the rest of the staff here with USA Basketball assured me that if I continue to work hard and continue to get myself back into tip-top shape that I have a great opportunity to possibly make this team,” she said. “That’s what I wanted to do, and here I am fighting for another gold medal.”