The disappointment is still palpable, but Katie Lou Samuelson is ready to return to basketball.
It’s been nearly a month since the Storm forward contracted COVID-19 and was forced to withdraw from the Summer Olympics.
Samuelson was poised to make history as a key contributor on Team USA’s 3×3 women’s basketball team, which was a heavy favorite to win gold in a sport that was making its Olympic debut.
However, before boarding a plane to Tokyo, Samuelson discovered she tested positive for the virus despite being fully vaccinated. She was placed under health and safety protocols, which required her to quarantine for a week in a Las Vegas hotel room where the U.S. team had been practicing.
Meanwhile, Las Vegas Aces guard Jackie Young replaced Samuelson and joined a quartet that included former Washington Huskies star Kelsey Plum, Stefanie Dolson and Allisha Gray, which went 8-1 in the tournament and captured the inaugural gold medal.
Admittedly, Samuelson was heartbroken and devastated.
She also had symptoms, and was forced to take some time to recover.
More importantly, Samuelson dealt openly and honestly — something she admits she wouldn’t have done years ago — with the loss of missing out on the Olympics.
She cried a lot. She talked to her support group, which includes a network of family, her boyfriend and her therapist.
“The biggest thing was for me was just being OK with feeling upset, feeling angry (and) knowing that was part of what is going to happen with something of this magnitude,” Samuelson said Monday during a Zoom interview. “Once I stopped getting so upset with myself for getting angry or getting upset, I started to feel like I could make the steps forward to move to a good place and a better place.
“Just knowing that you can always reframe every single day to make something out of it rather than a negative experience. For me, I’m just happy to get going again with games. It’s been a really long couple of weeks.”
What’s next for Samuelson and the Storm is Thursday’s 6 p.m. Commissioner’s Cup Championship Game against the Connecticut Sun in Phoenix.
The matchup between the top teams in the East and West conference caps the first-ever in-season tournament and resumes a WNBA season that’s been on hiatus for five weeks due to the Olympics.
Seattle (16-5) and Connecticut (14-6) will compete for bragging rights, the Cup trophy and $500,000 in prize money. Players on the winning team each earn $30,000 while the runner-up receives $10,000 apiece.
For Samuelson, it’s another chance at making basketball history and moving past her Olympic disappointment.
“I get this chance to play on Thursday,” she said. “You never know when the game will be taken away from you again so I’m going to make sure to make the most out of every single day.”
On Monday, the 24-year-old former Connecticut Huskies star spoke openly about the progress she’s made to being able to focus on her mental well-being.
“The biggest thing for me is not bottling it all up and talking to people I need to,” Samuelson said. “Reaching out to my therapist when I need to quicker. A couple of years ago, I wouldn’t have done this. I would have kept it all in and bottled everything up. But I’ve been able to talk to my family, my boyfriend and my therapist and that’s been really helpful to just get those emotions out instead of letting it all stay inside.
“For me, that is huge coming from being someone who stayed so far away from seeking help to being able to rely on others and count on people. I’m really proud of myself for how I’ve been able to handle everything and just move forward. I’m excited to start playing games. I think that everyone is, but I’m really excited to be having that opportunity to get back on the court.”
During her first year with the Storm, Samuelson has started 14 of 16 games while averaging 6.9 points, 3.3 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 20.9 minutes – all career highs.
The No. 4 pick in the 2019 WNBA draft has been able to revitalize a once-promising pro career that had been sidetracked by a pair of trades following one-year stints in Chicago and Dallas.
Due to her 34% three-point shooting and versatility, Samuelson has become a valuable asset in Seattle’s bid for a second straight WNBA championship.
Still, Storm coach Noelle Quinn wasn’t thinking about any of that when the two talked almost daily following Samuelson’s positive COVID test.
“I called her right when I found out,” Quinn said. “As a human that is difficult to consume for me. You understand how hard someone works to be in the Olympic Games. But that is mental, spiritual, physical and emotional happenings going on that sometimes not a lot of people are able to understand or comprehend.
“I didn’t care about the basketball. I didn’t care about her coming back to Seattle. I didn’t want to know any of that other than she was OK and just making sure that she is in a good heart and mind space.”
Samuelson said Quinn was one of the first people who called her and talked about how supportive her coach was.
“I think the biggest thing is she reached out and just wanted to be there for me overall,” Samuelson said. “It had nothing to do with basketball, not worried about the Storm and not worried about what’s going on here. She wanted to make sure I was doing OK mentally and I appreciate that a lot for her to be there for me. She’s been great. She’s been good every step of the way.”
Quinn added: “I think this is going to be the reset and refreshment that she may need to get her mind moving forward in a good way and a good space that we need her to be into for us to be successful as a team.”
Samuelson was forthcoming about her bouts with anxiety and depression during a May interview with ESPN, spoke in support of tennis star Naomi Osaka and gymnast Simone Biles who pushed the conversation of mental health to the forefront during the Olympics.
“The biggest thing that people tend to forget sometimes is how human athletes are and that there is a lot that goes into our sports specifically, but in our lives overall,” she said. “For me, seeing them speak on mental health and take the right steps that they need to do to make sure that they are healthy is the biggest thing and awesome to see. Like Simone said, mental health affects your physical health for sure. If you’re not mentally there, you’re going to get injured.
“For her to be speaking on that on such a huge platform and such a huge stage. I think everyone in the world saw what she was able to do and what she was able to speak on. It’s really inspiring. I hope it inspires anyone that is going through mental health issues, family problems or whatever they need. Whether they are in sports, out of sports or anything. Everyone saw that. People understanding how important mental health is and having all these athletes speak out on it, it’s been really great to see. Hopefully if it helps one person, that’s enough.”
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