She played unbelievable down the stretch in that conference tournament. She blocked shots, rebounded, defended and did a great job. It was remarkable that she did it with one eye. —Utah coach Anthony Levrets
SALT LAKE CITY — Diana Rolniak was receiving a routine vision check at the University of Colorado hospital when a blind spot in her right eye was first discovered. The doctors scheduled an MRI and sent her on her way.
Three days later, in June 2009, she received the call.
There was a tiny tumor on her pituitary gland, they told her. Nothing serious. Not yet.
Rolniak had just graduated from high school and was about to start a whole new life: a different city, new faces and a more demanding schedule.
Some familiarity, however, would remain: the squeak of sneakers on a highly polished floor, the hollow echo of dribbling basketballs, and something Rolniak had grown quite accustomed to — the satisfaction of out-jumping her opponents and swatting away feeble jump-shots to the crowd's resounding "ohhh."
Only now, the 6-foot-4 incoming freshman would be defending the rim in front of an entirely new backdrop, a backdrop filled with thousands of red seats and University of Utah fans.
Rolniak, whose love for basketball began in the second grade, was a star on her team at Regis Jesuit High in Aurora and set a Colorado state record for career blocked shots and most blocks in a single game. The tenacious forward received a full athletic scholarship to the University of Utah following her senior year.
"I looked at quite a different array of schools all over the country," Rolniak said. "This was just the best overall fit for me as far as the basketball program, what I wanted to do for school, and being close to home. It had all the right components for me."
Little did Rolniak know at the time, one of those components would be access to one of the best teams of medical experts in the nation.
It wasn't until two years after that initial phone call that the pituitary tumor became an unmanageable problem.
Rolniak had just finished her sophomore year, playing in all 35 games with 24 starts. She was among the leaders in the Mountain West Conference for blocked shots and led Utah with 43 on the season. The Utes earned an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament that year by defeating TCU in the conference championship game in February 2011.
It was then, around the end of a dream season, that the tumor took center stage.
Rolniak was 80 percent blind in her right eye and 20 percent blind in her left. Her ability to finish out the season, and perform as she did astounded Utah coach Anthony Levrets.
"She played unbelievable down the stretch in that conference tournament," he said. "She blocked shots, rebounded, defended and did a great job. It was remarkable that she did it with one eye."
Rolniak found it difficult to see who she was defending, and her loss of peripheral vision made it near impossible to make a post move over her right shoulder.
But not only was Rolniak struggling on the basketball court, the pre-med student was experiencing headaches while reading and was unable to keep up with her studies. It was draining.
Up until this time (March 2011), she received periodic check-ups but the surgery was always put off.?Initially, the tumor was so small that doctors weren't entirely sure it was to blame for her vision problems.?The doctors kept close watch, reassuring Rolniak that everything was OK for the time being.?
Finally, her rapidly decreasing vision and dramatic hormone changes moved her to action.
"It was really starting to affect me by the end of the season," she said. "I didn't want to keep waiting to see what might happen."
Rolniak did her homework, alongside her parents, to find a doctor.?When they found the right one at the University Hospital in Salt Lake City — Dr. William Couldwell — he wanted to operate immediately.
Rolniak was relieved.
"I was more excited than anything when I found out I was going to have surgery," she said, "because I was so scared that my vision would keep decreasing, and eventually I might not have any."
On July 7, 2011, the growing tumor was removed through Rolniak's nose. The resilient athlete spent a week in the hospital, including some time in the intensive care unit, and spent the next two months dealing with severe dizziness, changing vision, fluctuating fluids and swelling. After two long recovery months, doubt started to sink in.
"I was using a cane and had to have people help me get around," she said. "It got really difficult and there was a point where I didn't know if I'd ever be able to return and play again."
The junior hoped to get back before the beginning of the 2011-2012 season, but understood some things just can't be rushed. She was, and still is, lacking 50 percent of the vision in her right eye, and 20 percent in the left.
"I had to listen to my body and do what it told me to do," Rolniak said. "At the end of August, I turned a corner and got really lucky."
Rolniak worked hard in rehab and trained with the team to prepare for the upcoming season. Her commitment to get back onto the court paid off.
She reprised her presence in the paint and has been a defensive force despite the ongoing recovery. Her success is an inspiration as she continues to rise above her physical limitations.
"There are changes each week that I'm trying to adjust to," she said. "With my depth perception, blurriness of vision … It's just something you have to weather."
The recovery process generally takes about 12 months before the brain fully "resets" and things feel normal. Her vision, however, will never completely return to in full. The optic nerve tissue generally does not regenerate and, although she is expected to regain some, it will never be fully restored.
Despite her many trials, Rolniak has found the strength to rise above.
The high-achiever is currently a senior research author for a gastroenterologist at the Huntsman Cancer Institute, and she intends on becoming a trauma surgeon.
Rolniak attributes her love of basketball to its challenging nature. Her will to meet challenges head on with a positive attitude is what truly makes her's a remarkable story.
"I am more thankful than anything," she said. "There are a lot of people dealing with worse things that don't have access to the care that I have. I am thankful I was able to bounce back."
Diana Rolniak file
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