There seemed to be little doubt whether or not Keirsten Walters would make an impact during her career at UConn. Joining the program in 1998 with Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Asjha Jones and Tamika Williams, she was part of one of the most heralded recruiting classes in the history of the team.
Walters was poised to help lead the Huskies in their quest to win a second national championship and beyond. Never did she imagine that she would appear in just 29 games, and not one after her freshman year in which she started 14 games and averaged 20.7 minutes.
Walters had the passion and the heart to continue. But it was her problematic knees and her shoulder that ultimately forced her to prematurely walk away from the game.
“Of course, there are regrets,’’ Walters said. “But maybe the correct word is sadness. I came to UConn because I wanted to compete with the best for playing time and get better everyday. I loved the competition and getting pushed day in and day out. And on top of it, we knew that our work would lead us to have a chance for a national championship. I was very sad, that I couldn’t contribute, not just during the games, but to help push my teammates to get better day in and day out as well. Sadness over not being able to do this and not being able to suck it up and play was very difficult for me to come to grips with for years after I made the decision not to play.’’
Walters said she first experienced knee pain while she was in junior high. She underwent arthroscopic surgery on her left knee prior to her senior year at Heritage High School in Colorado after it was discovered that she had articular cartilage damage. That was only the beginning.
Cutting and performing regularly at a high level during UConn coach Geno Auriemma’s high intensity practices and in games resulted in increased soreness in both knees during Walters’ freshman season in 1998-99. This led to further surgery following the season when her knee swelled up during the NCAA tournament. Again, small articular cartilage issues were discovered and some inflamed tissue was removed.
“They still weren’t sure why they were hurting so bad,’’ Walters said. “After months of rehab and my knees still hurting they sent me to Vail, to see Dr. (J. Richard) Steadman to see if he could solve my problem. We tried Synvisc, a cartilage type injection to help and then I had four more surgeries over the next year and a half, rotating between the right and left knees. They found larger areas of articular cartilage damage and did micro fracture on the spots, which put me on crutches, non-weight bearing, for eight weeks before I could start rehab.’’
Walters averaged 3.5 points, 1.3 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.8 steals as a freshman. She red-shirted the 1999-00 and 2000-01 seasons as she attempted to regain her health and her strength.
“During these surgeries, they discovered I had a scar tissue problem that after I have a surgery that scar tissue overreacts and builds up to a consistency of cement and then damages more areas of my bones,’’ Walters said. “My knees continued to hurt on all activities besides running straight. They still, to this day, swell up from running a long distance, but especially hurt and swell after cutting or jumping.’’
To compound matters, Walters was forced to undergo shoulder surgery during her junior season to repair a torn labrum and other damage. The time was coming when Walters needed to make a decision she never believed she would have to make at this stage in her career.
Auriemma even tried to limit her time on the floor during practice to ease the pounding in her knees. Nothing was working.
“The worst part is nobody could figure out what the injuries were because they were just on and on and on and on and we could never get a handle on it,’’ Auriemma said. “You watch her play and the kid was one of the most competitive kids I’ve ever seen. And then it got to the point where it got so bad she couldn’t play. And it just killed her that she couldn’t play. And there’s no doubt in my mind she would’ve been a heck of a player here.’’
Walters had witnessed Shea Ralph overcome multiple procedures to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee and become an All-American in 2000. She had also witnessed Bird return without a hitch from the torn ACL she sustained in 1998 and carry on with her All-American career.
Walters simply was not blessed with the same good fortune that would permit her to continue her career. Her decision to walk away following the 2000-01 season is one that she said was “more than impossible’’ to make.
“After all the surgeries and still having knee pain, where I would dread walking across campus to a class or sitting in a class for a long time even bothered me, I decided that it would be difficult for me to even imagine the pain I would have after playing in one practice, let alone day after day,’’ Walters said. “Coach and everyone was very supportive trying to help give me some options to where I could play. But I knew that wouldn’t be fair to my teammates who put in the effort everyday. I also felt that, as weird as this sounds, pushing through the pain day in and day out makes you kind of less sensitive to it. Stopping and resting at practice or a day off made the pain more acute. However, since I had significant muscle weakness and still pain, I just knew that I didn’t have a choice at that time that would benefit my teammates and myself in the long run.’’
Walters, who is married and slated to give birth to her first child in January, currently works with kids on individual basketball skills and is the head coach/director of the Colorado Elite club basketball team. She still experiences swelling in her knees on long runs. But it has not stopped her from competing in an Ironman triathlon, which consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a marathon run, and numerous Half Ironman triathlons.
The fact that Walters only has one day a week where she puts in a long run has helped. She takes part in cross training or shorter runs on the other days, which she said has helped her enjoy competition.
“I never thought of leaving the game prior to when I did, even then I wasn’t sure that I wasn’t going to be able to play,’’ Walters said. “Basketball was a significant part of my life and I enjoyed it so much that I was willing to endure whatever it took to be able to play. I had no idea that would be the only year I would play. I knew I could play through pain, as I had done it for years before UConn and especially during that freshman year. However, it was so difficult to get most of the strength back in my legs because every time I worked out to get the muscle back, my knees would swell, then I would lose muscle because of the swelling and it became a vicious cycle. The cutting and jumping caused significant pain and because of the lack of strength also increased my chance of doing more damage. I always believed I would play again, with or without pain.’’