Kaitlyn Washington's two-run single was the key blow for Texas. [JAMIE HARMS / FOR STATESMAN]

Softball

Despite arthritic diagnosis, Kaitlyn Washington keeps living her dream in Texas’ outfield

Posted March 26th, 2018

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Story highlights
  • At 13, Washington was diagnosed with a form of arthritis; she's been told she has the hips of an 80-year-old woman.
  • She has started 23 games this season at left field and is second on the team with a .318 batting average.
  • She continues to play softball even though she was warned that if she played past high school, "by the age of 50, you'll be in a wheelchair."

Kaitlyn Washington is aware that one day she may end up in a wheelchair.

Texas’ sophomore outfielder has other things to focus on right now, though. Like the 60 feet between home plate and first base. Or the space that the converted first baseman needs to cover running down a fly ball in the outfield at McCombs Field.

Washington has lived six years with ankylosing spondylitis, a form of arthritis. The diagnosis, however, has not kept her off the field.

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“It’s a dream of mine,” Washington said. “I wasn’t going to let (a doctor) tell me I can’t play. I couldn’t give it up either, even at the age of 13.”

Six years ago, during a long day of club softball, Washington injured her back while sliding into second base. The pain worsened and she was eventually taken to the emergency room. It was initially thought that Washington had lupus, but doctors ultimately came back with a different diagnosis.

Texas outfielder Kaitlyn Washington takes a turn at bat against Kansas at McCombs Field on March 28, 2018. JAMIE HARMS / FOR AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Ankylosing spondylitis is an arthritis that causes inflammation of the spinal vertebrae that can lead to severe, chronic pain and discomfort. Washington described her hips feeling as if they have several tiny holes in them. She was told that she has “the hips of an 80-year-old woman.” A slight curvature in her spine also causes her right foot to point outward when she walks.

She was advised that eventually she’d need to cut short her softball career. The physical stress of workouts, practices and games — especially at the college level — worried Washington’s doctor. Washington was warned that if she kept playing past high school, “by the age of 50, you’ll be in a wheelchair.”

Playing college softball, though, was a dream of hers. Washington was young and undeterred; if she was given a shot to play, she was going to take it. And she found support in her decision at home.

“This is something she really wanted to do,” said Tracy Sutton, Washington’s mother. “I just wanted to support her. This was her first love.”

Washington, who grew up in Humble, was first introduced to softball while attending Eagle Springs Elementary. When she was eight, she brought home a flyer for an upcoming tryout. Washington had never played the sport, but she convinced her father to buy her a glove, helmet and bat. Her mother remembers her practicing in the backyard that night until midnight.

Washington aced her tryout and soon her world revolved around the sport. Family vacations complemented her travel team’s tournaments to Colorado, Florida and Mississippi. Washington went on to earn all-state honors at Humble Atascocita, and she led the Eagles to the UIL state tournament her senior year.

Along the way, Washington’s dream of playing in college also became her mother’s. Sutton, who was waging a three-year battle with bladder cancer, still made it to most of her daughter’s games. She promised Washington that she would see her play at the next level.

Sure enough, Sutton, who has been in remission for two years, has made many trips to McCombs Field. Washington signed with Texas after initially committing to Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. In Austin, the future forensic psychologist enjoys going to coffee shops, listening to Daniel Caesar songs and eating any type of pizza that isn’t plain cheese.

Texas left fielder Kaitlyn Washington is hitting .318 during her sophomore season. JAMIE HARMS / FOR AMERICAN-STATESMAN

On the field, the 5-4 outfielder earned a spot on the Big 12’s all-freshman team in 2017. This season, she’s started 23 times in left field.  Washington’s .318 batting average ranks second on the team.

This past weekend, Texas (16-13) opened conference play with a sweep of Kansas. Washington scored in each of the wins. She went 3 for 3 in the opening game, a 10-2 triumph.

“I think she’s a special player,” said Nadia Taylor, the former Longhorn who now plays professionally with the Chicago Bandits of the National Pro Fastpitch league. Taylor, who also came to Texas from Atascocita, has long been Washington’s friend and role model. “I mess with her all the time overthinking stuff and turning up her swagger a little, because she has it in her.”

Washington has adopted Taylor’s advice — “You can’t eat with everybody”— as a mantra of her own. To Washington, it means she doesn’t need to hang around people who won’t work as hard as she does.

Washington prefers to showcase that hard work in the hitting cages. To treat her arthritis, she stretches a lot and applies heat to her hips. Exercise also helps, although the intensity might be harmful in the long run. She bypasses medicines because of the side effects they could have on things like a future pregnancy.

Washington says she feels like a normal player. In her eyes, the only thing that sets her apart from her peers is a superstition that requires her to put her left sock and shoe on before she addresses her right foot.

Washington’s sophomore season continues Tuesday when Texas hosts Stephen F. Austin. It will be the 71st game of a college career that Washington doesn’t see ending anytime soon.

“I’m definitely just going to ride it out until it ends,” Washington said. “I don’t want it to stop me and then have regrets or anything.”

Tuesday’s game

Texas vs. Stephen F. Austin, 6 p.m., McCombs Field, LHN, 105.3

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