At this time last year, Taylor Williams was struggling just to make it through a single basketball practice at Father Lopez.
One day she’d have plenty of energy; the next, according to coach Brad Ridenour, she’d be hunched over or tired after warmups.
And nobody seemed to know why.
Was it simply being unaccustomed to the conditioning routine, as Ridenour assumed? Was it a lack of effort, as her father, Evans Smith, believed?
No matter the cause the physical exhaustion was very real for Williams.
“My chest would be burning. Sometimes, I couldn’t catch my breath, and I would get lightheaded during practice,” she said.
Ridenour noticed something strange during Williams’ breakout 27-point effort against Wekiva last December. During a timeout, he realized that Williams was zoning out.
“There was definitely a moment where she was not with us; that’s why we took the timeout,” Ridenour said. “She was standing there and told me she needed to come out (of the game).”
The symptoms lingered for months.
In January, her parents brought her in for an ear infection. A simple examination revealed nothing out of the ordinary.
Smith then asked the doctor, on a whim, about Williams’ shortness of breath, thinking it could be asthma-related. The doctor listened to her heartbeat, which again revealed nothing.
Smith suggested Williams run in place. She did so for a minute.
Little did she know that those 60 seconds would spell the end of her basketball season and uncover a much larger issue. Triggering what was believed to be a heart murmur, Williams saved herself from potentially collapsing on the court, or worse.
Hours before a crucial district game against New Smyrna Beach on Jan. 10, a pediatric cardiologist discovered an anomalous right coronary artery in Williams’ heart. Although it’s a condition present at birth, ACAs are often not detected until late adolescence or adulthood — sometimes not until chest pain, heart failure or sudden cardiac death occurs.
“When I found out, I was heartbroken, but thankful at the same time,” Williams said.
Father Lopez lost that night, 44-29, and Williams’ teammates were admittedly distracted on the court.
“My emotions were complete shock, and I was saddened to hear about it and how I knew she was feeling,” senior point guard Madi Camporese said. “Basketball means the most to her and to see it taken away from her that quickly and have feelings of uncertainty for her condition and return is crushing, as a friend and teammate.”
According to the Texas Heart Institute, coronary artery anomalies (CAA) are found in only 5 percent of people who undergo cardiac catheterization for chest pain. CAAs are the second-leading cause of death (between 15 and 34 percent) in young athletes.
Sudden cardiac death is believed to be the result of the abnormal coronary artery being “squashed” between larger arteries that stretch during exercise, per the Texas Heart Insitute’s website. Less blood, and subsequently less oxygen, reaches the heart.
“We were devastated. We thought she was just being lazy, she wasn’t pushing,” Smith said. “We didn’t know she had this heart problem she was born with.”
In late February, after seeking multiple opinions, Williams opted for surgery at the University of Florida Health Medical Center in Jacksonville. She had no fear in the moments before going under.
“I was happy, actually,” she said. “I just wanted to be done with it.”
The procedure lasted more than 5 hours and proved successful. Williams was up on her feet the next day, her mother, Telcyn Smith, said.
Williams missed the Green Wave’s final 12 games after undergoing surgery. The operation kept her in the hospital for five days, and out of school for nearly two weeks.
It would be another seven months, though, until she was cleared to return to the basketball court. As preseason camp opened, Williams was welcomed back with open arms.
“Having Taylor back turns us into a completely different, dynamic team. It lifts us up,” Camporese said. “Seeing her do what she loves again is motivation for the rest of us to really pick it up.”
It’s taken time, but the surgery has allowed Williams to return, stronger than ever. Williams was a 2016-17 All-Area third-team selection, despite the time she missed, averaging 13.7 points and 4.8 rebounds per game.
A preseason Fab 5 pick, the 5-foot-10 wing leads the Green Wave (4-0) in scoring through the first week of the season, averaging 17.5 points and 6.3 rebounds per game.
Williams’ journey comes full circle on Friday night when Father Lopez faces New Smyrna Beach in a District 5-7A showdown.
“She was so raw last year, and it was my first year coaching her … so there were times where I’d ask myself if she knew how to really get out there and play hard. But that wasn’t the case. Thank God they found it; she could have dropped at any time.”
Williams feels fresher and in better shape than ever, even after practices are done. With renewed energy and untapped potential, Ridenour believes the best is yet to come for Williams. He said several colleges, including North Florida and Bethune-Cookman, have already asked about her.
“We had a practice a couple days ago and, I don’t think I’ve ever felt this way before, after it I didn’t think I was tired,” Williams said. “I just have to play my role and not try to do too much.”