CDO High School softball pitcher nearly died last summer
Kenzie Fowler, sounding like the teenager she is, gushed over having her name on the same trophy as some of sport’s one-name wonders. Kobe. Lebron. Peyton.
“Seeing my name next to them, I just kind of freak out,” she said. “Oh, my gosh.”
If something was worth freaking out over, it was this: Fowler, who recently completed her junior year at Canyon del Oro High School, was presented Wednesday with a trophy as the Gatorade National Softball Player of the Year.
“This is just a dream,” she said after a morning ceremony at the school.
“I never thought in my wildest dreams I would be the national player of the year.”
The trophy, engraved with the winners from 11 other sports – Alex Rodriguez, Emmitt Smith, Lisa Leslie – was not only a recognition of her skill and stats, but her story.
Just think. A year ago this week, her family had only one thought.
“Stay alive. Stay alive,” said her mother, Kelly Fowler.
Starting in February of last year, Kenzie began having difficulty breathing at times. Asthma, perhaps. Nobody could come up with a good cause. Fowler kept pitching, including a nine-inning shutout of Scottsdale Chaparral in the state title game.
What the family found out a day or two later when Kenzie went to the doctor was that she pitched that game with an oxygen level in her blood of only 19 percent.
“They were testing her with a spirometer where you blow into a machine and she couldn’t get above 19,” Kelly said. “They were like, ‘You’re not breathing hard enough.’ She said, ‘That’s all I got.’ ”
It reached life-threatening status when her arm swelled and turned purple during a workout. Three surgeries to remove blood clots followed.
As it turned out, Kenzie’s oxygen level had been declining for months because of thoracic outlet syndrome. The blood in her right arm had become restricted because of the overdevelopment of muscles in her shoulder, and a cervical rib near her collarbone.
Once she was out of danger, doctors told her parents, but not her, there was a chance she might never pitch again. Near the end of a 12-day stay in the hospital, Kelly had a softball talk with Kenzie.
You don’t have to do this, Kelly told her. You don’t have to come back. Kelly warned: If you do this, it’s going be a long road. It’s going to hurt.
Then she said, “I want to. It’s all I have.”
“It’s truly not all she had,” Kelly said Wednesday, her voice catching with emotion. “But at that moment, she wanted it. And it wasn’t just her motivation to come back as a player, but her motivation to come back to live.
“I needed motivation, too, because I didn’t need to sit and be depressed and feel sorry for what could have been.”
What could have been still is.
Fowler tackled her therapy with gusto.
“I’m used to working hard,” said Kenzie, 17. “Once I started physical therapy, I knew I could do this. I was full speed ahead.”
There were setbacks, of course. She would have pain after throwing a little bit. Was it serious? Was that normal? Are you OK?
She threw overhand for the first time on Oct. 9, Kelly remembering the date as she would an anniversary. Kenzie pitched in a game again for the first time in December during a tournament in Huntington Beach, Calif.
The crowd, part of a close-knit softball community, knew the story and gave her a standing ovation.
Her father, Lance, was in attendance. He called home, telling Kelly it “was the most awesome thing.”
Kenzie was back.
Not 100 percent. Not even during CDO’s season. But she was back.
She had a 24-1 record this season, posted a 0.28 ERA and struck out 309 in 148 2/3 innings. She also hit .448 with five home runs. She led CDO to another state 4A-I title.
She expects she might be full strength by this fall.
“I’m not satisfied with myself,” said Fowler, who is committed to play for the University of Arizona. “I’m definitely not 100 percent. I’m just looking forward to working as hard as I can this summer.”
Yeah, but there will also be a lot of fun this summer. She might get to meet some of those one-name wonders next month – or at least rub shoulders with them – at the ESPY awards in Los Angeles.
She and five other winners from their sports are up for top high school female athlete.
A year after nearly dying, her biggest worry this summer might be what to wear on the red carpet and how to get as many friends as possible to L.A. to share in the ESPY experience.
“Yeah,” Kelly said, “the fun problems.”
Gatorade National Player of the Year Award
> Kenzie Fowler was selected from 50 state winners, plus the District of Columbia
> Gatorade has been honoring high school softball players since 1997-98 (some sport awards date to 1985-86). Previous softball winners include Amanda Freed, Cat Osterman and ex-UA pitcher Alicia Hollowell.
> RISE Magazine administers the awards, working with coaches and media to select the state winners.
> Fowler is the only nonsenior among the previous softball winners.
Anthony Gimino’s e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
DID YOU KNOW?
Two Arizona athletes are among Gatorade’s 196 previous national player of the year winners in all sports since 1985. Both are from Canyon del Oro High: Kenzie Fowler (softball) and Bre Ladd (girls volleyball).