HARTFORD, Conn. — Katie Lou Samuelson experienced one of the most profound heartbreaks an athlete can imagine when, shortly before leaving to compete in the Tokyo Olympics, she tested positive for COVID-19 and couldn’t participate.
The disappointment of not competing in Tokyo is still fresh as Samuelson returns to the court Thursday for the WNBA’s inaugural Commissioner’s Cup Championship Game, where the Seattle Storm will play the Connecticut Sun in Phoenix. But behind the support of her village and growth in her own mental health journey, she’s eager to rededicate herself to helping her team win, regardless of whether there’s a gold medal at stake.
Samuelson, alongside fellow former Husky Stefanie Dolson, helped the U.S. qualify for the Olympics’ inaugural 3x3 competition this spring and was officially named to the team in June. It was a dream come true, and a validation of the sacrifices Samuelson made to get there: She missed a stretch of the WNBA season for qualification play and during her overseas season flew back to the U.S. solely to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
But while she was in Las Vegas for a final pre-Olympics training camp, the unthinkable happened: Just hours before leaving for Tokyo, Samuelson tested positive for COVID-19 despite being fully vaccinated, a case of a breakthrough infection that scientists say is relatively rare but more common recently due to the delta variant.
With her Olympic dream crushed for 2021, Samuelson had to self-isolate in a Vegas hotel room, she told Yahoo! Sports. Her teammates (Dolson, Allisha Gray, Kelsey Plum and replacement Jackie Young) went 8-1 in the tournament and won gold.
It was a lot to deal with.
“The biggest thing was just being OK with feeling upset, feeling angry, knowing that that was part of what is going to happen with something of this magnitude,” Samuelson told reporters Monday. “Once I stopped getting so upset with myself for getting angry at things or getting upset, I started to feel like I could make the steps forward to move into a good place, into a better place and just knowing that you can always reframe every single day to make something out of it rather than a negative experience every day.”
Samuelson has more recently opened up about her mental health struggles and the importance of normalizing those conversations. She told ESPN in May 2020 that she suffered from anxiety and depression but for a long time was in denial.
The Katie Lou who just had to deal with her Olympic disappointment is a lot different from that old Katie Lou, though.
“I think the biggest thing for me is not bottling it all up, and talking to people I need to, reaching out to my therapist when I need to quicker,” Samuelson said. “A couple years ago, I wouldn’t have done this. I would have kept it all in and try to bottle everything up. But I’ve been able to talk to my family, my boyfriend, my therapist, and that’s been really helpful to just get those emotions out instead of letting it all kind of stay inside.
“For me, that is huge coming from being someone who stayed so far away from trying to seek 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.”
Before she knew it, it was time to return to the court. Samuelson had to first focus on recovering from a symptomatic case of COVID-19. Once she passed protocol and could restart her work with the Storm, she’s worked on getting her lungs back.
Storm head coach Noelle Quinn has been thrilled with how Samuelson has rebounded.
“It’s tough and I felt for her,” Quinn said. “But I am really impressed with how she’s approached it mentally, how she’s just coming back to Seattle and got her work in and jelling right back with her teammates, and the focus and the level of intensity that she’s shown. I’m just happy that she is in this place, and I would like to keep her in this mental and heart space. Not even about the basketball, just about her as an individual.”
Being back with the Storm also allowed Samuelson to focus on doing whatever she can to help the Storm instead of dwelling on the past.
“She’s just kind of put her heart, mind and soul into us right now,” Quinn said. “Just think of the toll that it can take on someone. And for her to just step into a situation where she understands that we need her to be at our best, and her best is showing up every day with a smile on her face and putting her work in. I commend her and appreciate that.”
It’s translating onto the court, too, when the Storm may need her more than ever. With Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd and Sue Bird just returning from the Olympics, the core who have been in Seattle during the break may need to shoulder more of the load on Thursday. That includes Samuelson, who’s started 14 of 16 games for the Storm and is relied upon for her versatility and shooting.
“She’s looked amazing,” Quinn said of Samuelson. “She’s looked dynamic, shots flowing, understanding what we want her to do, very confident and things of that nature. So I think this is going to be just like the reset and refresh that she may need to just get her mind moving forward and in a good space that we need her to be in for us to be successful as a team.
Thursday will be the unofficial resumption of WNBA play after a monthlong Olympic break, and no one may be more excited to get back out there than Samuelson.
“I get this chance to play on Thursday, and you never know when the game will be taken away from you again,” Samuelson said. “[I’m] making sure you make the most out of every single day.”
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