Marah Strickland didn't have any idea she was sick.
She played two years at St. John's Catholic Prep in Frederick, two years at Towson Catholic, two seasons at Maryland and one season at South Carolina, and it's possible she was symptomatic the entire time. She just didn't know.
A little more than two years ago, she finally found out. Doctors diagnosed Strickland with hypothyroidism before the 2011-12 season, and they told her it was something she might have had for a long time. With one year of eligibility remaining, the Mount Airy native saw her career on hold — again.
But for Strickland, it was just another step in a long basketball journey. After all, she had already played for two high schools and two colleges over the eight years before she was diagnosed.
And Saturday night, the 6-foot forward will be on the court for her third college, leading the Fordham women's basketball team in a quarterfinal matchup with the winner of the Butler-St. Louis game.
"It's been an exciting trip, an exciting road to get here," Strickland said. "I've been blessed with every single experience that I've had."
Strickland's road to this point has been an interesting one, and her life-altering diagnosis was far from the first bump in it.
After finishing out her last two years of high school at Towson Catholic, she began her college career 46 miles down the road at the University of Maryland in 2007. And after her freshman year, it looked to be a perfect fit.
Strickland started all but one game for the Terps alongside Crystal Langhorne, Kristi Toliver, Marissa Coleman and Laura Harper, averaging close to nine points and three rebounds per game as the team made a run to the Elite Eight in the NCAA tournament.
But all the promise she showed in her rookie campaign didn't carry over into her sophomore year.
Though her scoring and rebounding numbers stayed level, her playing time dipped by more than a minute per game, and she started just 23 contests compared to 36 the year before.
Then, two months after the season, Strickland announced her decision to transfer.
"As an athlete, you have to find the best place and the best home for you," Strickland said. "At that time, [Maryland] wasn't."
Strickland joined coach Dawn Staley in South Carolina and, after sitting out a year due to NCAA transfer rules, averaged 8.3 points in 19 games during her lone season with the Gamecocks before graduating in 2011.
Stephanie Gaitley was looking for a player like Strickland before the next season.
The first-year Fordham coach had an empty spot on her roster, and she figured a graduate player — someone with experience who wouldn't have to sit out for a year — would be her best bet. Luckily for her, someone told her where to find one.
Valerie Nainima, who played under Gaitley at LIU-Brooklyn from 2006-2008, had also transferred to South Carolina, and she told her former coach about her teammate. Nainima played alongside Strickland during her senior season with the Gamecocks, and she thought she would be a perfect fit for the Rams.
"This was kind of meant to be," Gaitley said about Strickland. "She's a great leader for us trying to start a program, and we were a great spot for her to finish her career off the right way."
It wasn't so great at the start, though.
Strickland had started feeling the symptoms of hypothyroidism toward the end of her time with the Gamecocks, and she was officially diagnosed with the disease not long before the start of what would have been her first season at Fordham.
She began undergoing treatment and taking medication, and she tried to get herself healthy enough to play. But after just a few practices with the symptoms, which included rapid heart rate, weight loss and muscle weakness, it was clear Strickland wasn't going to be ready to play that year.
"You could just tell she was slow and fatigued," Gaitley said. "You could totally see the physical effects."
At the end of that season, Strickland applied for a hardship waiver from the NCAA. And, with the help of Staley and Terps coach Brenda Frese, she got it.
Now, playing in a rare sixth year of eligibility, Strickland is enjoying the best season of her career.
She's averaging a team-high 14.7 points per game and she led the Rams to an unexpected 22-7 record and the No. 3 seed in this weekend's conference tournament, earning a spot on the All-Atlantic 10 second team.
Not bad for a player who thought her career was over just two years ago.
"I had a tough time near the end there at South Carolina," Strickland said. "I felt my illness coming on. I thought that I was finished."
Clearly, she isn't. She'll have a chance to help lead Fordham to its first-ever Atlantic 10 championship this weekend, and she'll graduate from the university with a master's degree in urban studies.
Said Strickland: "It's a blessing."
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