Carroll College forward Baylee Watson attempts a 3-pointer in the P.E. Center. (RICHIE MELBY/MTN Sports)

HELENA – Each night when athletes hit the courts we see the best and worst part of their games, their strengths and weaknesses. What we don’t see are the challenges they face off the playing surface.

Carroll College senior Baylee Watson has her own unique challenge, one she thought would take her away from the game she loves for good.

“I would wake up in the morning, step out of bed and almost hit the floor,” Watson said, referring back to the moment she first noticed something different. “The pain is sharp, almost like pins and needles. The fluid just wouldn’t stop. It just kept coming to my knee so the first time we drained it, it was clear fluid. Then it would get cloudier and cloudier because it was getting infected. At this point, I had two MRIs, drained it six times and I was thinking, ‘Wait a minute, I’m going to be in this much pain the rest of my life? For the rest of my life will I have this swollen knee that there’s no answer for?’

Watson knew she needed answers and eventually decided to get to the bottom of her mysterious injury.

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“I went to my primary doctor and found out that I was positive for the antigen HLA-B27. It’s a heightened immune response that was attacking my joint,” she explained. “The arthritis that I do have is called ankylosing spondylitis. All of my white blood cells and everything used to fight infection went to my knee, not because I had an infection but because that was the joint it picked.

“The role of the white blood cell is obviously to get rid of infection or anything to your body that is foreign. I didn’t have anything foreign in my knee but the white blood cells need to degrade something so it would degrade my good tissue. You can’t have all that swelling and fluid without consequence.

Carroll College forward Baylee Watson attempts a 3-pointer in the P.E. Center. (RICHIE MELBY/MTN Sports)
Carroll College forward Baylee Watson attempts a 3-pointer in the P.E. Center. (RICHIE MELBY/MTN Sports)

Stunned, Watson turned to her faith and hoped for a solution.

“I prayed a lot about it, I asked my parents to pray for me,” said Watson. “My knee hurt so bad and I think I felt relief when there was a diagnosis. I struggled with the fact that it was arthritis. I felt like, ‘How is this possible? I’m 21 years old, I’ve never been injured, I’ve been healthy my whole life.’ Physically and emotionally I was in a bad spot.

Thoughts of a life without basketball began to enter her mind.

“I wasn’t sure what path I was going to take and I got down a little bit like, ‘This might be it. This might be my last year,'” she said. “I wish I would have known because I struggled with it in the beginning. I would say I was a little more selfish about trying to get back because I wanted so badly to get back for my team, for my coaches, for myself. So I talked with my coach about it.”

“I just said to her, you really have one decision to make. That decision is: we can feel bad and mad and frustrated about what happened, or we can focus on what you do have,” said Carroll coach Rachelle Sayers. “You have great teammates, you’re part of an amazing team and you’re a leader of this team. There are still ways you can contribute.”

Carroll College forward Baylee Watson talks with coach Rachelle Sayers on the bench. (RICHIE MELBY/MTN Sports)
Watson and Carroll coach Rachelle Sayers have formed a new bond through Watson’s injury. (RICHIE MELBY/MTN Sports)

“You have to put things in perspective,” added Watson. “It’s definitely not the worst thing that can happen to you. It’s so funny how small something is and how it affects you so greatly.”

Watson’s arthritis has been a learning experience for her as well as her coaches and teammates. There are good days and bad days, but through all the pain, the Saints have been there to lend a hand.

“It’s been a really, really interesting situation with how we’ve dealt with it and she’s approached it in the most mature way any player probably could,” said Sayers. “It’s definitely built our relationship, we have a great trust in one another. She trusts me when I tell her to sit down and take the day off even though she doesn’t’ want to, and I trust her when she gives me that look and I know that today isn’t the day, she’s not going to be able to go.”

“Without pain, holy cow,” Watson said of the relief she feels when the aches and agony aren’t present. “I felt so blessed to have the right doctors at the right time. I guess it was kind of a feeling of happiness that I can play. I can do this, arthritis isn‘t a big deal because I can take care of it. I did, I prayed a lot. Now I pray because I’m grateful.”