When Sedona Prince arrived in San Antonio in March for her first N.C.A.A. women’s basketball tournament, she was grateful just to be playing again after a long recovery from an injury.
But then Prince, who was a redshirt sophomore at the University of Oregon last season, noticed something that troubled her: striking differences between the weight room setups, meals and coronavirus testing available at the women’s tournament versus the men’s, which was occurring simultaneously in the Indianapolis area.
Inspired to raise awareness about some of the inequities women face in sport, Prince, 21, made a video comparing the women’s “weight room” — a rack of dumbbells and some yoga mats — with the vast, fully equipped workout gym available to the men. She shared it on TikTok and Twitter.
Let me put it on Twitter too cause this needs the attention pic.twitter.com/t0DWKL2YHR
The response was wider and more immediate than she expected — 100,000 retweets overnight, phone calls for television appearances on CBS, ABC’s “Good Morning America” and PBS, and a national dialogue about how women are treated in athletics and beyond.
“I knew that I had like a pretty big platform to do that,” she said last month in a phone interview from her childhood home in Liberty Hill, Texas. “I’m not as big as most of the other women’s basketball players, but I was like, I could do this. I have the power to do this, and my mom is always teaching me to just stick up for myself and do the best thing that I can.”
Though she was not expecting the attention, she was ready for it, Prince said, thanks to her mother’s advice and the rough road back to playing basketball that she had ridden for the past three years.
Prince’s mother, Tambra Prince, said in a phone interview that she always reiterated a tried-and-true saying to her children: “Speak the truth even though your voice is shaking.”
Since the episode in March, Sedona Prince has continued drawing attention to women’s sports across her social media profiles. Her TikTok has 2.3 million followers; her Twitter, over 42,800. She offers looks into the daily life of a Division I athlete and amplifies stories she feels have been overlooked, with the goal of increasing interest in women’s sports and the athletes who play them.
A recent example: the setup of the N.C.A.A. women’s volleyball tournament, where coaches decried the practice courts and some of the TV broadcasts.
“There are so many things to document behind the scenes,” she said. “And the reason I want to do that is so people get invested in women’s basketball, and they did this year. They became so invested in the story and what was going on behind the scenes that they wanted to watch the game.”
It’s hard to say how much of a difference the weight room controversy made, but viewership of this year’s women’s championship game rose significantly. The 2021 women’s basketball final, in which Stanford edged its Pac-12 rival Arizona, was the most viewed one since 2014, according to ESPN, which broadcast the game. All of the rounds had increased viewership over 2019, when the most recent previous tournament was played.
While Oregon lost to Louisville in the round of 16, Prince, a 6-foot-7 forward, was happy to even be participating.
She broke her right tibia and fibula while competing for the U.S. under-18 basketball team in Mexico City in August 2018. After flying back from Mexico, she had a rod surgically inserted into her leg and, within a month, was doing weight-bearing exercises at the urging of athletic trainers in preparation for her freshman year at the University of Texas, Tambra Prince said.
Michael Leslie, an orthopedic surgeon at the Yale School of Medicine who did not participate in Prince’s recovery, said in a phone interview that too much movement too soon after a fracture could prevent it from healing in alignment.
Prince’s leg became noticeably swollen, pain persisted and she learned that her tibia had not healed properly in January 2019, which led her to another operation in New York. There, doctors found that part of her bone had died and was infected. They prescribed a strong dose of an antibiotic taken through a catheter threaded through her arm and a large vein over her heart, her mother said. About two weeks after flying back to her dorm room, still on the treatment, Prince felt feverish, weak and immobile.
“I was woken at 3 a.m., straight out of bed, when her kidneys were shutting down — I mean straight out of bed, my heart was palpitating,” Tambra Prince said. “And I heard: ‘She’s dying. Go.’”
Arriving at Prince’s dormitory, less than an hour’s drive from her parents’ home in Liberty Hill, her mother took her to the hospital, where they learned that the antibiotic had caused toxins in her kidneys to rise to a level that could have led to permanent damage.
“If people really knew how close she was to dying, they would never criticize her if she missed a shot,” Tambra Prince said. “They would say, ‘I’m watching a miracle.’”
F. Perry Wilson, an expert in kidney injuries at the Yale School of Medicine who did not participate in Prince’s recovery, said in a phone interview that it was plausible that a high dosage of this antibiotic could have caused a buildup of toxins and serious consequences, depending on when the patient sought treatment.
A spokesman for Texas’ athletic department declined to comment for this article, saying that the department is unable to comment on a student-athlete’s health.
Prince never played for Texas. After her freshman year, she transferred to Oregon and sat out a year because of N.C.A.A. transfer rules.
For Prince, her recovery evokes her mantra — “strong and powerful” — a nod to her initials, “S.P.,” which she and her mother both have as tattoos. They have been partners in basketball since Prince started playing the game in fourth grade.
She has always been tall: To an outsider, basketball might seem like a natural choice. But for the Princes, it did not always feel that way.
“I was the worst player until honestly I was in high school,” Sedona Prince said. “I was clumsy, I was tall, I was dorky.”
Prince said she was bullied a lot at a young age. Her mother, who played basketball and volleyball at St. John’s College in Winfield, Kan., said she “made it her mission” to take Sedona to “tall places,” including basketball and volleyball games, and told her daughter: “Look how beautiful these women are. Look at them. Look how good it is to be tall.”
Tambra Prince recalled her daughter in childhood as someone who always stood up for others. And, at times, as someone who was just plain stubborn: 3-year-old Sedona would insist on her outfits and tell her mother to “speak to the hand.”
“My best friend said: ‘She’s just going to get through her teenage years early. She’s going to be a breeze at 13,” Tambra Prince said. “And I called my friend when Sedona hit 13 and I said: ‘No, she just refined it. She got better.’”
The mother and daughter said they leaned on each other through the injury, recovery and transfer. Sedona Prince aims to use past pain to elevate those around her, a quality noticed by those who share the court with her.
“Playing this year was so special to me because I was like, wow, I’ve been through all of those things and I’m still able to play,” said Prince, who averaged 10.4 points and 3.9 rebounds a game last season. “That’s why I was like, I’m going to give my all every day because I never know what my last game or practice will be.”
“How blessed am I to be coaching a young woman like her?” Oregon Coach Kelly Graves said of Prince after the Ducks’ win over Georgia in the N.C.A.A. tournament’s round of 32. “She is really the whole package. Not only a tremendous player, but just think of the pressure she’s had on her being so outspoken. She’s had a lot of attention placed on her, and she has backed it up. And that’s not easy to do.”
Prince is hoping to return to U.S.A. Basketball for the first time since her injury in 2018. She is one of 13 finalists to represent the United States in June at the 2021 FIBA AmeriCup in San Juan, P.R.; a final roster of 12 will be decided during a training camp which will begin on Tuesday, according to U.S.A. Basketball.
At the same time, Prince hopes to continue expanding her social media presence, talking about issues that transcend basketball — particularly for athletes of color.
“Being able to use my platform and talk to some of these Black athletes who feel underrepresented or discriminated against, to help them share and use their voice to hopefully help people who are discriminated against every day, would be really special,” she said.
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