Rebecca Silinski will most likely end her four-year basketball career at Vanderbilt having played in fewer than 70 games and having scored no more than 100 points. When the Vanderbilt women’s basketball team honors its three seniors after the Commodores’ final home game against Florida (8 p.m., CSS) on Thursday, her list of on-the-court accomplishments won’t be as long as those of her teammates Jence Rhoads and Hannah Tuomi.
No, she won’t be the most decorated Commodore to ever step onto the floor of Memorial Gymnasium. But that doesn’t mean her four years at Vanderbilt were any less significant.
“Bottom line is it is about what you become and how you deal with it,” Silinski said. “These four years have been such a big change for me. A lot of things have happened and I think I am better person because of all of it. I look back on these four years and I have very fond memories. I just know I have made a lot of connections with girls that have come and gone and girls that I am graduating with this year and I wouldn’t change that for anything.”
It didn’t take long for Silinski to realize she wasn’t going to have the typical college experience. Her freshman year, her younger sister, Kaitlyn, just 13 years old at the time, was diagnosed with Lyme disease.
Kaitlyn spent more than three years receiving treatment in Kansas City — far away from the Silinski home in Birmingham, Ala. Silinski’s family was spread throughout the country. Her mom, Karen, stayed in Kansas City with Kaitlyn. A younger sister, Mikayla, spent time in Pennsylvania with family. Her father, Robert is the vice president and CFO of ShelterLogic — which makes outdoor products, most notably canopies — and traveled back and forth between Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Nashville and Birmingham.
“My family has always been a huge part of my life and it was hard to have us all split up and just knowing, my sister, at one point, they talked about she might not make it. ... I think all of that was a lot to deal with, especially as a kid,” Silinski said. “You go from 18 years old, a high school kid to kind of being faced with the real world and adult-like decisions you have to make. I honestly have to say the coaching staff, the support staff and the girls on the team made it possible to stay here and work through it all.”
It didn’t get better for Silinski as a sophomore as she was diagnosed with Lyme disease and sat out the second semester. In comparison to Kaitlyn, however, Rebecca's condition wasn’t as severe. She received oral antibiotics for three months, while Kaitlyn was, and is still, receiving treatment intravenously.
Still, it was a scare and Silinski again was aided by the support of her teammates. Then-seniors Christina Wirth and Jennifer Risper decided to spread awareness about Lyme disease during their senior night in 2009. It carried over and on Thursday, Rhoads, Tuomi and Silinski are supporting World Vision. It is an organization that focuses on stopping poverty worldwide and the senior class is sponsoring a child in poverty.
“It was amazing just to see how the girls responded,” Silinski said.
Added Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb: “I think it makes me feel good that she has had this family away from home. It has been such an important part of life and helping her through tough times. That is what we are supposed to be.”
This past December, a couple members of Silinski’s extended family were able to share in what she calls “one of the most incredible experiences.” Rhoads and junior guard Angela Puleo both made the trip down to Birmingham with Silinski as Kaitlyn returned home for the first time in three years.
“Really, words can’t describe what the feeling was to have her family there and finally be able to be in their house all together at one time,” Rhoads said. “I try to be there for her whenever she needs me because it is a terrible thing they have to go through. With her coming home it has been a big step and a positive step.”
Kaitlyn is still in Birmingham, getting better but still confined to her house as Silinski expects more treatment in the future. But Silinski says Kaitlyn, now 16, has stayed positive throughout the tiring ordeal.
“She is amazing — absolutely amazing,” Silinski said. “I think that is one thing that is an inspiration and a reason to continue every day. If she is fighting like this then there is no reason you can’t go out, regardless of what is going to happen, and fight every day when you are playing. The way she has responded and is such an inspiration, how she constantly has a positive attitude and always talking about what she wants to do… She is an inspiration.”
Kaitlyn has inspired her older sister to pursue a career that would impact all those affected by Lyme disease. Silinski graduates in May and then plans to attend law school and pursue a career in medical legislation. She not only wants to spread awareness about the illness but she intends to push for legislation that would require doctors to test for Lyme disease earlier.
“One of the most frustrating things is to hear doctors say like, ‘Lyme disease doesn’t exist in this part of the country.’ Well, it does,” Silinski said. “And regardless, if she has traveled anywhere — it is not like people are stationary anymore. People travel and go to different cities and different countries and can be exposed to that. You’ll never know whether or not if you have it unless they allow you to be tested at the early stages of it.”
To Balcomb, there is no doubt that Silinski will be at the forefront, leading the way for a change.
That is what she has done the last four years. Though, she might not have been out in the open on the court, Balcomb says Silinski provided as much of a leadership presence as Rhoads or Tuomi.
“She is a true leader for this team,” Balcomb said. “I can honestly say of any player that I have had for a four-year period, she has added more value to a team but not necessarily by her minutes on the floor than anybody I have ever had. I think everybody on the team respects her. The staff certainly respects her and trusts her. I just knew when I signed her she was going to be a leader and she is every bit of that leader that I thought she would be.”