SUWANEE -- As competitive as Katherine Ahlswede is, it's always been in her nature to try to play through injuries or illnesses.
So after the Collins Hill volleyball standout missed a week of action due to the swine flu early last season, she didn't think twice about trying to play through abdominal pain that persisted after she was cleared to return to the court.
However, it didn't take long for her to realize the pain was more than aftereffects of the flu.
"I was just really weak since I couldn't really eat anything," the Eagles' junior said. "Then, I remember this one time (at a college scouting combine) everything started blacking out and I said, 'Wow, something must be really wrong.'"
What was really wrong was Celiac Disease, a digestive allergy to gluten products that damages the small intestine and interferes with absorption of nutrients from food. It had caused her to lose more than 10 pounds.
It took nearly the remainder of the 2009 season for Ahlswede's doctors to diagnose the condition.
"We did not actually start noticing it, honestly, until after she came back from the swine flu," said Collins Hill head coach Scarlett Straughan, an assistant with the Eagles varsity team last year. "Even then, it took a while for (Ahlswede's doctors) to tell us that there was something else going on. Katherine was just determined to fight through it."
Yet she still managed to wind up as one of Gwinnett County's top setters, handing out 574 assists and adding 93 digs and 46 service aces in helping the Eagles to a solid 26-18 record.
A year later -- now healthy and on a gluten-free diet -- Ahlswede seems poised for a big junior season.
She already got off to a strong start despite the Eagles' losses to Brookwood and Parkview in their opening matches Tuesday, with 21 assists and five digs against the Broncos and eight more digs against the Panthers.
Straughan has already noticed a difference in her level of play, which was already high.
"Her energy level this year is twice as much as it has been in the past," Straughan said. "She had a hard time with her endurance (last season). ... We found ourselves having to sub her off the court (at times), which is not something we ever do. ... It's like taking your quarterback out of the game."
And as important as the improvement of her physical condition is to her game, just resolving the uncertainty has freed her emotionally and allowed her to be more focused on the court.
"I feel so much better," Ahlswede said. "It's like a weight lifted off my shoulders. I feel so much more comfortable. I feel like myself again.
"I think it's going to be a good season. I think I can just go out and have a good year. I can focus more on volleyball and being with my team and stuff, instead of trying to figure out why I feel so bad and being down all the time because my stomach hurts so bad."
There are still adjustments for Ahlswede to make, the biggest one being her diet.
"It's a gluten-free diet," Ahlswede said. "They have this special gluten-free bread that I can have, and all the pastas. But I'm pretty much into fruits and vegetables now and pasta salads.
"It was (a big adjustment to make), especially ... the easy stuff, like sandwiches, for team (meals) right before games. I have to pack my own stuff now. It's a lot harder. But I've never let it affect me, really. I've just accepted it."
That ability to handle the lifestyle adjustments is something Straughan admires most about Ahlswede.
In fact, she says makes it her a better team leader even beyond her abilities on the court.
"I always wondered how she balanced everything," Straughan said. "Battling what she was personally, combined with the load that she takes at school and all the time she spends on the volleyball court, it's amazing that she is able to excel as much as she does in all those areas.
"I will say she has a maturity in her. She is a junior, but having seen her come through the program from (her) freshman (year) on, she has developed a leadership and a confidence you can't coach. She's absolutely a role model, especially to the younger kids. As they learn what Katherine has been through and what she goes through daily, I think they just respect her drive and her determination to succeed."