SALT LAKE CITY — Diana Rolniak is the type of person who thrives when faced with a challenge.

Her ability to fight through trials has been especially helpful over the past three years, as a sophomore on Utah's women's basketball team who has dealt with a handful of new obstacles, including leaving her home in Denver to start school at the University of Utah and taking on the workload that comes with being a college athlete.

Each of those became infinitely more complicated when she was hit with her biggest test: learning to live, and play basketball, with celiac disease.

"I just took it head on," Rolniak said of her July 2008 diagnosis. "I had already committed to Utah, and I just took it on as a new challenge in my life."

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which the body is unable to digest gluten, which is a mixture of proteins that appear in foods processed from wheat, oats, rye and barley. When Rolniak and others with celiac get gluten poisoning, they can be sick for days as their body works to recover.

"Everything you would imagine with a gastrointestinal illness, you have those problems," Utah interim head coach Anthony Levrets said, and Rolniak added that, "I'm going to be sick for a while and I can lose close to 20 pounds in one week."

She experienced just how devastating eating the wrong items can be during the summer before her senior year of high school, when the 6-foot-4 forward was trying to play basketball while dropping below 100 pounds.

As a result, Rolniak spent her first year at Utah focusing on how to maintain a healthy lifestyle while adjusting to living in Salt Lake City and being a college student and athlete.

After living in a group setting to start her freshman year, Rolniak has since set up specific living arrangements in order to prevent cross-contamination, including living alone and turning herself into a chef.

"I have to have a lot of control over my food; I do most of my own cooking," she said. "When I did have a roommate, I spent most of my time making sure things were kept clean and things were kept separate. It's kind of a consuming process."

Traveling with the basketball team adds another dimension to the daily grind. Fortunately, more and more restaurants have begun offering gluten-free menus.

"On the road, we've figured out the restaurants that cater to gluten-free … that she's comfortable with," Levrets said. "And all of the hotels we stay in, we make sure they're able to prepare gluten-free meals to go along with our pregame meals."

In addition to figuring out what items are safe to eat, working at maintaining her weight is a constant effort for Rolniak, because of a combination of her disease, high metabolism and grueling workouts.

"There's a certain weight I want to stay above in order to be healthy," she said. "If I dip below that, I'm not the same player — I'm not the same person."

Rolniak eats every two hours and nearly 6,000 calories a day. Her daily menu looks something like this:

Breakfast is two bowls of cereal, two yogurts, eggs and a homemade breakfast sandwich; she has two snacks before lunch, which each consist of a protein shake and fruit; and at noon she eats a sandwich, fruit, yogurt, chips, Reese's and a Diet Coke. She has a small shake during the team's film session, takes a break to snack during practice, and then has another shake after practice. Dinner is another substantial meal, which can range anywhere from lasagna to chicken to steak, potatoes and rice. Depending on how late she is up, Rolniak says she might have another dinner, which is always followed by dessert.

Levrets said he has seen a difference in Rolniak this season, both as a student and an athlete.

"Getting diagnosed and leaving home, going to college and being an athlete, figuring all of those things out (was a challenge)," he said, "but she's a take-charge kind of kid … and the healthier she gets, the more she learns to manage this, the better she's becoming. She's got a dynamic future ahead of her on the floor and off."

Aside from being a starting forward and averaging 23 minutes a game, a nearly 10-minute improvement from the beginning of the season, Rolniak is a stellar student. She's a chemistry major — the chemistry program was a key part of what drew her to Utah — and is working toward becoming a surgeon.

"I've wanted to go to medical school since I was seven years old," she said. "Nothing quite gets me as excited as chemistry does, I'm just lighting up as I talk about it. I look at ingredients on the back of shampoo bottles and start drawing out the structures in my mind."

She said she's currently interested in either trauma or oncology. Both are male-dominated fields, but she feels her personality and the on-your-feet decision-making training from basketball will help her be successful.

"For me, it's about making a difference for other people. I've been blessed with so much, and I definitely feel called to do this, and I can help a lot of people doing this. It's something I'm really passionate about."

MWC women's tourney

In Las Vegas

Today's first round

Colorado State vs. Air Force, 3 p.m.

Utah vs. UNLV, 5:30 p.m.

San Diego State vs. New Mexico, 8 p.m.

Wednesday's second round

Colorado State-Air Force winner vs. Utah-UNLV winner, 5:30 p.m.

Wyoming vs. San Diego State-New Mexico winner, 8 p.m.

Friday's semifinals

BYU vs. Colorado State-Air Force—Utah-UNLV winner, 1 p.m.

TCU vs. Wyoming—San Diego State-New Mexico winner, 3:30 p.m.

Saturday's Championship

Semifinal winners, 2 p.m.

Women's awards

Newcomer of the year: Courtney Clements, San Diego State

Freshman of the year: Michelle Plouffe, Utah

Defensive player of the year: Mindy Bonham, BYU

Sixth player of the year: Kristen Riley, BYU

Player of the year: Aubrey Vandiver, Wyoming

Coach of the Year: Jeff Judkins, BYU

All-MWC first team

Aubrey Vandiver, Sr., G, Wyoming - Player of the Year

Mindy Bonham , Sr. G, BYU

Emily Carter, Sr. G, TCU

Helena Sverrisdottir, Sr., G/F, TCU

Hillary Carlson, Sr., F., Wyoming

Second-Team

Coriann Fraughton, Sr., F, 6-1, BYU,

Kim Mestdagh, Jr., G/F, 5-10, Colorado State

Starr Crawford, So., F, 6-0, TCU

Michelle Plouffe, Fr., F, 6-4, Utah

Iwalani Rodrigues, So., G, 5-9, Utah

Third-Team

Haley Hall, Sr., G, 5-4, BYU

Sam Martin, Fr., F, 6-2, Colorado State

Amanda Best, Sr., G, 6-0, New Mexico

Jessika Bradley, Sr., F, 6-3, San Diego State

Paris Johnson, Sr., C, 6-4, San Diego State

Honorable Mention

Jazmine Foreman, Sr., G, 5-5, BYU

Kristen Riley, Jr., C, 6-3, BYU

Jasmine Patterson, Fr., G, 5-7, New Mexico

Courtney Clements, So., G, 6-0, San Diego State

Kelli Thompson, So., G, 6-0, UNLV

Janita Badon, Jr., G, 5-7, Utah

Jade Kennedy, Sr., F, 6-1, Wyoming

Chaundra Sewell, So., F, 6-1, Wyoming

All-Defensive Team

Mindy Bonham, Sr., G, 5-10, BYU

Porche Torrance, Jr., G/F, 6-1, New Mexico

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Paris Johnson, Sr., C, 6-4, San Diego State

Starr Crawford, So., F, 6-0, TCU

Janita Badon, Jr., G, 5-7, Utah

e-mail: sthomas@desnews.com