Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan North Gwinnett Katie Black a senior who plays second base dives to field a ball during a game against Duluth in Suwanee last week. Black has dealt with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis since she was four.
SUWANEE -- Because she's had the chronic illness since she was 4, Katie Black doesn't remember life without aching joints and battling cold weather. But that hasn't stopped her from playing softball the last 12 years.
A senior, Black plays second base for the North Gwinnett High School softball team, and goes about her business so routinely that many of her longtime teammates didn't realize she was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, a hereditary condition traced to her father's side of the family. A casual fan may not realize either that Black deals with inflamed joints or fingers that may swell larger than others.
This season for the Bulldogs, Black has hit .357 with a double, six runs batted in and seven runs scored. For her career, which saw its final regular season game on Thursday againt Peachtree Ridge, Black hit .295 with four doubles, 15 RBIs, 18 runs scored and three stolen bases. She also had a .960 fielding percentage.
"I never really let it stop me, I never let it affect me much," Black said. "I love playing more than it hurt, and I loved playing more than it kept me from. There have been times when it's been difficult, or it hurts to play. When it's cold, and my joints are inflamed, it's definitely more of a struggle, but it's not anything big enough to affect me."
Her father and North Gwinnett coach, Randy Black, said a close eye on her would reveal that her movements in the field aren't as fluid as other players, and he'd remind his assistant coaches to help him balance being a father and coach on the diamond.
Assistant coach Wayne Pierce said father and daughter, coach and player, must balance that relationship, something he realized when he coached his three sons in football and baseball.
"He told me, make sure I don't overstep bounds one way or another," Pierce said of Black. "Make sure I'm not too hard on her, make sure I'm not too easy on her. I think he's done an excellent job of that. It's not easy coaching your own child. You have to have a balance and he's done a great job of having a balance."
Randy Black said sometimes it's obvious to him if a play should have been made smoother, but he admits it's difficult to distinguish between being a dad and being coach.
"As a dad I might be harder than as a coach, because dad says 'Make every play,' and coach says, 'I understand because million dollar players make mistakes every night,'" Randy Black said. "The physical mistakes aren't so bad, but it's the mental mistakes, she does pretty well on those."
One of Katie's teammates and best friends, Amanda Shimmin, has played with Katie since the fourth grade. Shimmin said the condition never stopped Katie from wanting to play.
"I know in the back of my head that she has it, but it never really affects anything," Shimmin said. "Some people don't even know. Half of (our teammates) didn't even know. Her close friends know, but that's just because we've known her longer. She doesn't let it affect her, she plays through it, and moves on with her life."
Randy Black, who has been diagnosed with arthritis, said he has six uncles who have severe cases of the condition, and three aunts are also diagnosed. But Katie has three younger sisters who haven't shown any signs of having the condition.
When Katie was diagnosed at 4 years old, her doctor described it as her joints are fighting a battle with her body, and slowly weakening themselves.
To cope with the condition, Katie does extra stretching and takes three medications, two pills and one injection, that are anti-inflammatories and coat her stomach. Those dosages are the lowest levels Katie said she's taken in her life. Previously, she took a steroid injection, but it had side effects that caused weight gain and curly hair.
In seventh grade, she experienced internal bleeding that was thought to be ulcer-related, but the exact cause was never found, Katie said. Eventually, the bleeding stopped and her hemoglobin levels returned to normal.
But the incident caused her to miss the seventh grade basketball season.
About that time, her family decided to change from a rheumatologist who had treated her for 10 years. That doctor didn't favor Katie being "super active" and "hated that I played basketball."
Her current rheumatologist suggests being active, but also self-aware of limits.
"If you feel like this is OK, do it," she recalled the doctor saying.
Her best treatment, hands down, is sleep and rest, which Katie said her Mom often reminds her to get more of.
But no matter the treatment or stretching, travel softball, which she stopped playing two years ago, soon became too much to handle because it began in early spring when temperatues for weekend tournaments were in the upper 40s and low 50s when players arrived at fields at 7 a.m.
Because the high school regular season ended this week, temperatures are still warm enough to not cause pain in her joints.
"The high school season pretty much ends before it gets too bad with the weather," Katie said. "I would probably suck it up to play a high school game versus sitting out because of it."
But arthritis wasn't the only reason she stopped playing travel softball; Katie also had academic and other extracurricular activities that she wanted to focus on.
Still, the weather is difficult to gauge, because there isn't a specific temperature that she knows leads to problems, and the next morning following cool temperatures isn't always painful.
Randy Black said what the family has tried to do is learn as much on the topic as possible, and remind Katie to take medication regularly. Sometimes, that's a battle, he said, because if there's been multiple days pain-free, "she thinks she's cured," he said.
Ultimately, the coach and father focuses on the positives, and tells her "it's no different than someone who has glasses. It's something that you have to work through so you find alternate solutions."
While the family is assured she won't be restricted later in life, such as starting a family, they realize outside of coaching her own kids, Katie's softball career is coming to a close.
"Knowing that this is her last go at it, she's really sucking it up," Randy said. "But she's really sucked it up most of her life playing sports."