Taylor Gadbois' stolen treasure

Ben Walton

Her mother's tutelage helped Taylor Gadbois become the most prolific base stealer in major college softball.

Body tensed like a speedskater frozen at the starting line, Taylor Gadbois waits on first base for a chance to run.

She was the slow one in her family when she was younger. Slower than her older sister and younger brother, at least. Definitely slower than her mother, a former college track athlete. But Dana Austin looked at her daughter's awkward, long-legged strides, reminded of nothing so much as a newborn colt, and told Taylor she would be the fastest one in the family one day.

So she is. And perhaps in the country. Now a redshirt sophomore at the University of Missouri, Gadbois has speed to spare.

With 40 stolen bases in 44 attempts this season, Gadbois began the week as the most prolific base stealer in a major conference in college softball. A natural right-handed hitter who spent her first two years at Missouri transforming herself into a left-handed slap hitter to best make use of her speed, she also ranks among the top 30 nationally in batting average this season. If she makes contact and the ball bounces more than once, odds are she's going to beat the throw to first base.

And if she gets to first base, she isn't going to stay there for long.

Her mother's daughter

Her mom gave her more than the genes to move quickly. Austin played softball at Tarkio College and stole her share of bases, too. She was the one who taught Gadbois how to time that first step, how to slide under or around a tag. She taught her what to do with that speed.

Courtesy of Taylor Gadbois

Taylor Gadbois with sister Jordan, left, brother Derek and their mom, Dana Austin.

She's still teaching. Or at least teasing. Perhaps the two aren't mutually exclusive.

"She's far better than I was," Austin said. "Now going down the first-base line, I think I could beat her because she doesn't get out of the box very fast.

"And she doesn't like that comment."

The chuckle with which the last sentiment was delivered suggested a certain familiarity with the look it might elicit from her daughter. It is a mother's prerogative to draw those looks.

Yet there are some things none of us can outrun.

Austin was diagnosed with leukemia five years ago; Gadbois was a sophomore in high school at the time. Treatment for that disease, in turn, resulted in graft-versus-host disease (GVHD), a condition that caused the bone marrow transplant she received to attack her body. Among a litany of resulting health concerns, which included kidney issues and skin so brittle it looked like tree bark, she lost most of her eyesight, first in one eye and then the other. She lost her job and then her independence. Her body is fighting itself, and it can't win. No one pretends otherwise.

"Every time she goes in the hospital, I think they wonder how she makes it out," said Jordan Gadbois, Taylor's sister and a former softball player at Northwest Missouri State who is now in nursing school.

So perhaps it is not merely the next base that Taylor is after when she waits for the pitch.

It hasn't been easy for her to make sense of a world that changed before it was supposed to. What remains constant is softball. And in that moment on the field, more than any time, she is still her mother's daughter.

Austin has never seen Gadbois steal a base in college. Not really. She has been in the stands when her daughter's cleats fought for purchase in the dirt and then propelled her forward, head bowed and arms churning until she flung her body at the base searching for safety. Austin can see all of that in her mind because she has been there herself. She knows what she should see.

"She's the one that taught us to throw, she's the one that taught us to steal bases," Jordan said of their mother. "She was a huge influence. If it wasn't for her and how much confidence she gave us, I don't know how good of ballplayers we would have been. Taylor had the natural ability to be a great ballplayer anyway, but you have to have the mental side of it, too.

"If it wasn't for our mom, I don't know how great of a ballplayer she would have been."

My mom was my role model. I looked up to her in everything. I told her everything. She was my mom, but she was also a really good friend of mine.
Taylor Gadbois

Taylor might not have been a ballplayer at all, if not for her mom. When it came time to get involved in organized sports, she was the kid who was still more interested in playing in the dirt than chasing down fly balls or running out hits -- or listening to coaches. One person recognized the type because it had been her a couple of decades earlier.

"I wanted to play in the sand or play on the merry-go-round," Austin recalled of her own introduction to softball. "They kept having to holler at me to come back."

So she pulled Taylor away from the dirt and challenged her to pay attention, to put some effort into the game. She flipped a competitive switch. Soon enough, Taylor was a center fielder, just like you know who.

"My mom was my role model," Taylor said. "I looked up to her in everything. I told her everything. She was my mom, but she was also a really good friend of mine. We hardly ever would fight, and if we did fight, it was probably about sports because she would want me to do better. But honestly, she's amazing."

Jordan is a younger facsimile of her mother in how she approaches life. There is some of that in Taylor, too, but there is also something else. That competitive fire her mom stoked never cooled. The colt became a whirlwind going through life with a smile on her face and a penchant for saying whatever was on her mind.

"She was my sweet lovey-dovey little sweetheart when she was little," Austin said. "Then she grew up and she got to be a little bit more ornerier than the other two -- not in a bad way.

"Then with this cancer, everything changed."

Disease hits home

Jordan was in her first year at Johnson County Community College when their mom got sick, so it was just Taylor and Derek at home with Austin and their stepfather, Bob Austin. The word "leukemia" had power, to be sure. But at the same time, Taylor had heard so many stories of people beating cancer that she believed it when her mom, not wanting to unsettle her kids more than necessary, downplayed the diagnosis and assured them she would beat it.

No problem, Taylor figured.

Courtesy of Clayton Hotze

A natural right-handed batter, Taylor Gadbois transformed herself into a left-handed slap hitter to take batter advantage of her speed.

But leukemia is a problem. It is not easy to beat. Austin spent more time in the hospital for treatment than at home in the months that followed. Back in their hometown of Maryville, Mo., Taylor and Derek had to temporarily move in with friends of the family. New responsibilities added up. Life was different. And to a teenager expecting something closer to the kind of quick, clean recovery that makes for good movies, it was unsettling.

"I think that's when I started to resent my mom," Taylor said. "I know that sounds really, really bad, but she wasn't there. I just wanted her there. What high school girl doesn't want her mom around?"

Exactly how much things had changed didn't hit home until the day Taylor visited her mom in the hospital during treatment and playfully teased her that the chemotherapy couldn't be that bad if she still had her hair. Taylor reached out a hand to accentuate the point and came away with a clump of hair.

Her mom came home eventually, but things didn't return to normal. Nor would they through the occasional ups and too frequent downs that followed.

"She got angry," Austin said of the aftermath of that moment in the hospital. "She wanted me to be the person that I had been before, where I was still outrunning the guys on the slow-pitch team and out doing this and that. She got angry with the way things went."

Her mom recalled that for a long time, a couple of years, Taylor rarely wanted to talk about the cancer or the resulting health problems. But at the same time, Jordan noted, while her younger sister didn't ask her a lot of questions about specifics, Taylor wanted to see her mom whenever possible. She wanted to be with her.

The big conversations have come in the years since, conversations about life and death, about marriage and a future that won't include Austin. More often these days they talk about the small matters of everyday life, about movies or school or Taylor's boyfriend. And from time to time they still talk about softball, just like they used to at the dinner table when the conversation might turn to the right place to throw with a runner on second and less than two outs.

"Taylor is a person that doesn't like to show her feelings," Jordan said. "She'll show it if she's really happy because she's a goofball, but when she's sad, she doesn't want other people to know it."

The sense of humor was the first link in the friendship between Taylor and Angela Randazzo, a Californian who arrived in Columbia in 2011 as part of the same recruiting class. Only with time did Randazzo get a glimpse of the other side, Taylor's struggle to match the strength she sees in her mom while at the same time coming to terms with the fear.

"I can tell when she's lying -- when she says she's OK when she's not," Randazzo said. "It's kind of like pulling teeth with her to really tell you how things are going because she doesn't really like talking about it because she wants to keep her mind distracted. There are definitely times where I need to go and sit her down and talk to her because I know she just needs to talk about it."

Life lessons

Toward the end of the second week of March, Taylor and Jordan spoke on the phone one night after each talked to their mom and expressed similar concern that she didn't sound well. Jordan said she would call her mom again in the morning to check in on her. Austin didn't answer on the first try. Or the second. Or several more after that. When she did answer, she was too weak to hold the phone. Away at nursing school, Jordan called an aunt, who took Austin to the hospital. Jordan said her mother's blood pressure registered at 50 over 20 at the time, a level that can be close to comatose, if not fatal.

Still in her practice gear, Taylor arrived at the hospital in St. Joseph, Mo., hours later after a teammate drove her the nearly 200 miles from Columbia. Her mother told her she wanted her to go back to school. She didn't want her to miss a conference game against Kentucky the next day. An important game, although the adjective seems woefully out of place.

"We've talked about it a lot more in the past year, about what we're going to do if Mom passes away and how we're going to handle it," Jordan said. "Just how we're going to feel, I guess.

"Right now, for all three of us kids, it feels like she is slowly leaving us."

Austin left the hospital after that March scare. She was in the stands in Columbia on April 9, Taylor's birthday. Her family is thankful she is still there. There is also an understanding that she won't always be.

"She's taught me to be a good person," Taylor said. "She gave me everything I need to know in life. Even though when she does pass she won't be around, I still have all of those things that she's taught me.

"I've tried to tell her that multiple times. ... I've tried to let her know that it's OK."

Austin also taught her daughter how to steal bases. That is less important in the long run, but every time Taylor takes off for second, it says what words sometimes can't.

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