The Badger women's basketball team plays tomorrow in the Big Ten tournament.
It's a game one former Badger would give anything to be playing in.
In some sense Shawna Nicols life has come full circle in just the last 6 years.
The former Badger women's basketball player had a short playing career that covered 3 years, two coaches and a whole lot of pain on the court that has changed her life forever.
Shawna's Father Vince Nicols says, "She's always been very gifted."
Beth Nicols, Shawna's mother says, "I always know when Shawna picks a lane she's going to go for it."
"They were going to have to drag me off this floor and I think that's what they did," says Shawna Nicols.
For Shawna Nicols you could say what defined her as player also sowed the seeds for tumultuous journey thru her young adult. life. Nicols hard nosed defensive style was compared to that of her friend and fellow Milwaukee Pius alum Mike Kelley. Kelley turned playing defense into an art form while leading the Badgers to the Final Four ... and Nicols was more than willing to try to following her hero's lead in leaving it all out on the floor ... literally.
Shawna says, "I took a lot of pride in it because I like to do it because it's a big momentum changer so you kind of learn to flop before they hit you."
But that source of pride soon turned into a problem.
Shawna says, "I don't remember the first one."
What was first thought to be back problems from all the hits Shawna took would eventually be diagnosed as the affects of multiple concussions. How many is not known but Nicols estimates that the UW medical staff and her doctors concluded there were at least 6 or 7.
Shawna's mother says, "When the injuries first started I was always sitting on the edge of my seat. Is she going to go down again?"
UW Head Basketball Coach Lisa Stone, "When you're a player with that type of passion ... it's hard to put the seat belt on.”
Shawna's father Vince says, "It's like a boxer, you can only take so many shots to your head."
But while the source of Shawna's pain was in plain sight ... the result and struggle to deal with it was becoming a dangerously private.
Shawna's mother says, "I remember drilling her, are you sure you're ok because it sure looked like you're eyes were rolling in the back of your head."
"I kind of hid that for a little while which was silly on my part because as and athlete you don't see 10 years from now you don't see 5 years from now or after graduation. I see tonight's game or tomorrow's practice. When can I put a uniform on and get back out there," says Shawna.
The end of Shawna's time on the court as a badger came swiftly in preseason practice before what would have been her junior season. It was the final straw for the player who considered herself unbreakable.
Shawna says, "As soon as those words came, that was the most painful experience I've ever had in my life because you never think it's going to happen to you."
Vince says, "It's more important as I told her to come out of this get your degree and walk away from this healthy, still be able to produce in life and enjoy life.”
The beginning of the healing process for Shawna's physical and psychological pain was not as easy as just taking her out of harms way on the court. As she spent that time sitting on the bench after red shirting in some ways the pain was just beginning.
"I still have headaches every day. I don't remember the hits so I don't remember the pain but I remember how frustrating it is because I would do it all over again if I could," says Shawna.
"I am a basketball player and I always will be a basketball player. I know that there's so much more out there but this is the love of my life."
Despite a cloud hanging over, the love of her life as Nicols calls basketball, at the same time who Shawna was off the court became clear to her. And what happened next would help Nicols find a place in this world and lead her down a road that would end up back where it all began 6 years ago. On the court.
Shawna's mother explains, "Were in the car on the beltline."
Shawna's father says, "It was after a game."
Beth Nicols asks her daughter, "Do you have something you want to tell me Shawna?"
Vince says, "I'm like what's the problem what's going on."
"I said is this shen your going to tell me you're gay," says Beth.
Shawna says, "I think the whole family knew they were just waiting for me to come to terms with it and become accepting of myself."
"I swear I came out of the womb carrying a rainbow flag."
Vince says, "I remember telling her, don't live your life the way the way the other people think the way you should live your life"
"I think it finally kind of closed the chapter of my coming out process. I think they were just waiting for me to come to terms with who I am," says Shawna.
In fact you could say the timing of Shawna's revelation which coincided with her basketball career as a Badger prematurely ending due to her history of concussions served as a jumping off point to the next chapter of Shawna's life. One filled with EMT training with an eye towards becoming a firefighter and serving as an analyst for FSN North broadcasts of Badger women's basketball. All of which, help define Nicols as not a gay woman but a woman who just happens to be gay.
Shawna says, "It doesn't define who I am as it's just another part of me, I like chocolate ice cream and I like girls."
Shawna's mom says, "I want my daughter to be authentic and genuine and be true to herself. It is a piece of who she is. It's not the defining moment. It's just a piece of who you are."
Shawna hopes opening up about her life will serve as a lesson to others. But what it can't do is bring closure to her true love. Basketball. Which is why she's making a comeback.to Division II St. Joseph's in Indiana.
Shawna says, "It doesn't seem like I can get this out of my system and I think it's something I at least need to give a try. I think my mind is there I just need to get my body there and I'm excited to give it a shot."
Due to Shawna's medical past and the uncertainty of what could happen should Nicols, who still experiences headaches everyday, suffer another blow to her head, that feeling of excitement is not universal.
Beth says, "With every attempt I would like to talk her out of playing again. So my advice is don't do it, let's look at other directions in your life. Look at the ramifications if you’re seriously injured again."
"I think it's more important for you to remember what your name is, what your phone number is and more importantly what my phone number is and my birthdate,' says Vince.
Beth says, "Her response of course is, but you don't understand. So I told her I love her and I'll be there for her."
Still despite the medical risk and the uncertainty of it all Nicols see's a clear reason to make what she calls one of her big girl decisions in life. A choice made now that hopefully brings resolution in her future.
Shawna says, "I think the most impornt part is I can move forward with my life as maybe not being a basketball player, feel good about leaving the game on my terms. I'm so determined, I can't wait."
Nicols has not been given medical clearance to play in Badger alumni games.
And St. Joseph's has told her they will reevaluate her playing situation after one season. Nicols plans on putting her fire fighting and broadcasting career's on hold for now.
You can see Shawna's entire story this weekend on Wisconsin Sports Sunday.