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didi richards could see that her mother was crying. Ungeanetta Richards was nearly a thousand miles away, but Facetime couldn’t hide her fears.
everything is fine, didi insisted, trying to hold back tears. I’ll be out of the hospital in no time.
but her mother choked back a sob. “That’s not what it looks like,” Ungeanetta said.
That was in October. 24, a few hours after Richards, a top guard at no. 4 on the Baylor women’s basketball team, had been temporarily paralyzed in a freak on-court collision with Ella’s teammate Moon Ursin at practice. Richards, last season’s National Defensive Player of the Year for the Big 12 Champion Lady Bears, flew through the air to intercept a pass and Ursin inadvertently slammed into her hip and they both fell to the ground. p>
baylor coach kim mulkey didn’t see it happen, she was writing on her clipboard, but said it sounded “like a football collision without the pads”.
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richards fainted briefly, then came to, with baylor athletic trainer alex olson at his side. Richards had sustained a spinal cord injury with no radiographic abnormalities, causing temporary impairment. It was a nonstructural injury, but Richards initially dealt with paralysis from the hips down. essentially, it was spinal shock; Initially, a doctor wasn’t sure he would be able to play again.
“They said I was like, ‘I can’t feel my legs; I can’t feel from my hips down,'” Richards said. “I’m the type that every time I fall, I want to get back up quickly. Alex said ‘move your legs,’ and that’s when I realized I couldn’t.”
However, 38 days later, Richards was on the floor for Baylor, totaling four points, seven assists and two steals in Tuesday’s 67-62 win at South Florida. The always energetic and feisty Richards even picked up a coach in her season debut. She later smiled and admitted that she felt a little tired and out of breath, but otherwise fine.
ungeanetta cried again, however, along with didi’s father, damian richards sr., while watching the baylor game on their phones while attending son damian jr’s high school basketball game. in houston.
“That’s his will. He’s strong mentally,” Ungeanetta said of didi’s quick comeback. “No one expected her to bounce back so quickly. She’s so determined. She’s like a walking miracle.”
Even after medical professionals assured Mulkey that Richards would be able to return, although they weren’t sure when, Mulkey had his doubts. She kept them to herself, knowing how determined Richards was. but she had seen video of didi initially struggling to get across her hospital room with a walker. Later, Mulkey saw her doing rehab during Baylor practice, she eventually ditched the walker but still needed willpower to take each step.
“the maternal instinct arises in you,” mulkey said. “And it’s like, ‘To hell with basketball, let’s get him back to normal didi, let him walk and dance and be happy.'”
richards, says his mother, has always been an optimistic child. someone who gets out of bed in a good mood, happy and early, laughing and turning up the volume of his favorite music to start the day.
“If you’re not a morning person,” Ungeanetta laughed, “you probably don’t want to wake up with didi.”
mother and daughter had spoken via facetime early that Saturday morning on October 1st. 24 before baylor practice. ungeanetta was in atlanta to support a friend who had a family member going through a health crisis. later, she received the call that didi had been injured. ungeanetta flew back to texas early sunday morning.
“I was praying, praying, praying that my baby was okay,” she said. “Just as I landed and put my phone in airplane mode, I got a text from her saying I could wiggle her toes. As soon as I got to the hospital, she wanted to stand up and try to walk.”
flanked by nurses on either side and a walker in front of her, richards walked unsteadily, her determination continuing to push her forward. she wanted to be released from the hospital on Monday to join her team.
“The main thing was to get to our covid test at 12:15 on Monday as usual,” Richards said. “I kept telling the doctors and physical therapist, ‘I can do it!’ I just wanted to be back surrounded by familiar faces, something that made me happy, which is my team and my coaches.”
Mulkey tried to prepare his team, instructing his players to hide their surprise at seeing Richards using a walker. Richards said she kept telling everyone not to worry, even though inside she was scared. the first neurologist she went to see told her there was a chance she might not play basketball again. that made her briefly consider her red shirt.
“I sure kept a poker face,” Richards said. “There were definitely times when I felt a little bummed out, so I’d just go into my room and go to bed watching TV, or sometimes I’d even cry. I definitely had some tough times throughout this process.”
A second opinion with a different neurologist who had treated other athletes with similar injuries was much more optimistic.
“The second doctor told me: ‘come on, come on, come on, come on, come on!’ until your brain tells you to stop,” Richards said. “and I was like, ‘Okay, yeah, I can do that.'”
Part of the rehab was on an anti-gravity treadmill, which uses a pressurized air chamber to reduce gravity loading. It allowed Richards to walk without putting all his weight on his legs. then around nov. 5, she was able to get up from a chair and walk on her own without the support of the walker or anything else. on nov On January 18, Baylor tweeted a video of Richards taking jump shots.
“It was so dramatic how his legs woke up,” Mulkey said. “At first, I just watched her get up and walk around without the walker. Then she just kept getting better. One day, she snuck into a defensive drill from the sideline, and I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ and I thought, ‘she’s really going to come back.'”
shortly after the injury, richards said his legs went from feeling numb to feeling like a limb had gone to sleep and was waking up.
“It started to become a tingling sensation, like pins and needles,” he said. “That was still frustrating, because I was trying to get my legs to move, but it felt like dead weight.
“my legs felt stuck, or hesitant or jumped a little bit. that’s when i learned to celebrate every little thing, every different thing that was something i couldn’t do the day before. i became more positive with the little victories. “
ungeanetta and damian sr. traded time in waco to stay with didi for the next few weeks.
“I was determined to try to do everything myself; I didn’t want to depend on anyone,” Ungeanetta said. “She was then given permission to drive. And then it was determined that she was going to play again.”
on monday, doctors cleared richards to play. On Tuesday, he came off the bench and brought to Baylor the same experience and energy that he has had the past three years. Mulkey said another thing he loves about Richards is the humor he brings to the team.
“I’m going to give a good pep talk. I’m intense, I’m chasing it,” Mulkey said. “And then you’ll hear didi say, ‘you tell them, mulkey!’ most players would be scared to death saying that, but the kids got the message, and then we have to laugh. that’s just didi.”
richards said he has thought a lot in the last five weeks about what he can learn from the injury. she feels that he has brought her closer to basketball.
“It was my senior year, I was ready to get out of school and I wanted to try something new, because I want to be a model for sure,” Richards said. “But I think this injury was almost like a wake-up call in a way. And it really drew me more into the game.”
richards also promised herself to do something she’s always wanted to do.
“When we were sitting in the hospital, she said, ‘Mom, after I get over this injury, I’m going to sign up for a tap dance class,'” Ungeanetta said. “I was like, ‘Okay, I’ll be there at your shows.'”