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After brain surgery, senior winger continues to inspire Gophers women’s hockey team

Gophers senior winger Taylor Williamson celebrates during a game at Ridder Arena. Brad Rempel / University of Minnesota

MINNEAPOLIS -- There’s a tattered piece of white tape in the bowels of Ridder Arena. It has worn out over time, and remnants of the leftover adhesive are now more visible than anything else. What’s left is a subtle reminder to the members of the Gophers women’s hockey team before they step onto the ice.

“We leave all the crap that we have to deal with back in the locker room,” senior winger Taylor Williamson said. “As soon as we step over that piece of white tape, it’s about having fun and choosing joy, as (assistant coach Joel Johnson) always says.”

That hasn’t always been easy for Williamson in the past couple of years. She has been to hell and back while dealing with a host of medical issues that threatened to steal any semblance of a normal life.

Whether it was the emergency brain surgery, the diagnosis of an incurable disease or countless low moments in between, Williamson had much she wanted to forget, at least for a while.

For her, that piece of tape was no cliché.

"This game was my escape through all of that,” Williamson said as No. 2 Minnesota (30-5-1) prepared to host No. 7 Princeton (20-7-5) on Saturday in the NCAA tournament. “I honestly didn’t think about any of it when I was playing. I just got to be the little girl that loved the game, and that was really cool for me.”

Williamson is living with myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular disease that causes muscle weakness and fatigue. A little more than a year ago, she didn’t even know she had it.

Growing up in Edina, Minn., Williamson seemed destined to play for the Gophers. Her grandfather, Murray Williamson, played for the U in the late 1950s and went on to coach the U.S. Olympic team twice on his way to being inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. Her father, Dean Williamson, played for the Gophers in the late 1980s.

Williamson carried on the family legacy, and after winning an NCAA championship during her freshman year with the Gophers, she appeared to be on her way to an illustrious career — until everything changed toward the end of her sophomore year.

Williamson started having trouble speaking toward the ends of days, likening it to having a spoonful of peanut butter in her mouth. She avoided visiting a doctor, at least initially, chalking it up to being nothing more than the stress of being a student-athlete.

“It kept happening, and finally I went to the doctor and got an MRI — and that’s when they found the arachnoid cyst,” Williamson said. “I had to get emergency brain surgery to relieve the pressure it was causing in my brain.”

As soon as the doctors removed the cyst, which was about the size of an avocado, symptoms subsided. Williamson went on living her normal life.

“I recovered well from that,” she said. “Well, as well as anyone would recover from brain surgery, I guess. I was just happy I was feeling better.”

A few months later, the symptoms came back worse than before.

When Williamson returned to campus for her junior year, she could barely grip her hockey stick and struggled to keep up with her teammates. Her snap shot, which had long been a calling card of her game, produced nothing more than a fluttering puck.

Williamson’s difficulties were even more apparent off the ice. She couldn’t even put her hair into a ponytail because she couldn’t lift her arms above her head.

“We were all like, ‘What the heck is going on?’ ” she said. “It was really a battle to get through every day. I was just desperate for an answer. Just knowing something was wrong with me and having no solution for it was terrifying. It was getting to the point where I was starting to get hopeless.”

Still, she laced up the skates for the first game against Merrimack, a reward of sorts from coach Brad Frost for her hard work. Midway through the game, a rush of symptoms hit Williamson all at once.

She couldn’t speak. She couldn’t swallow. She could barely see because of a droop in her right eye.

Williamson’s parents rushed her to the emergency room during the game, and she was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis. In many ways, the diagnosis was a relief because the family at least finally knew what was causing the problems.

Then came the sobering moment. Williamson left the hospital and realized she was about to start the road to recovery all over again.

“Just thinking that brain surgery solved the problem and then finding out that it didn’t was really disheartening,” she said. “I definitely had my doubts about playing again. It was kind of like even though things were getting better after the initial diagnosis, they weren’t continually getting better, and it felt like it was starting to plateau in a way.”

Williamson eventually sought the help of former NHL player Neil Sheehy, a family friend and sports agent who has a side practice in neuromuscular therapy. Wild players Zach Parise and Ryan Suter swear by him, and now so does Williamson.

“After the first day of seeing him, it drastically started getting better again,” Williamson said. “He works with the muscles and can open up channels throughout the whole body to help the nerve signals come to the muscles in a quicker, more efficient way. After seeing him, I really got my hope back that this thing could get better.”

After three months away from hockey, Williamson returned toward the end of her junior year and went on to score the winning goal against rival Wisconsin in the final of the 2018 WCHA tournament.

“It was just the cherry on top of everything,” she said. “To have that play happen last year and to be able to punch a ticket into the NCAA tournament for our team was really cool.”

You would be hard pressed to find a more memorable moment for the Gophers from last year, especially considering they bowed out in the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament a week later.

“That was awesome,” sophomore defenseman Emily Brown said. “To say she deserves that moment would be an understatement. She worked so hard to get herself back into shape after facing all the medical hardships, and that was really inspiring. She works her butt off every day in practice. She definitely deserved that moment.”

Since then, Williamson has adjusted to living life with an incurable disease, and in her senior year she feels like she’s playing better than ever. She has played in all 36 games, tallying 20 points (including nine goals). Maybe more important, she is inspiring her teammates every time she steps over that piece of white tape and onto the ice.

“Someone that didn’t know her would never know she’s dealing with all of that,” senior center Kelly Pannek said. “She had her back against the wall and battled through it. It’s really cool to see.”

In a couple of weeks, Williamson will watch the curtain close on her career with the Gophers, a journey that has been more tumultuous than she could ever have imagined. She will never lead a normal life by most people’s standards. She likely will continue to see Sheehy regularly while taking medications and doing blood infusion treatments every few months.

“It’s kind of a part of my daily routine, I guess, which is kind of weird to say,” Williamson said. “It’s crazy to think I’ve known about it for over a year now. I’m out of that initial shock of it. This is my life, and I’m OK with that.”