Maeve Donnelly: Overcoming the Weight of the World

Amid the narratives and different backgrounds new Marist athlete transfers bring to campus, it’s hard to find one as compelling and unique as Maeve Donnelly’s. The Binghamton native’s arduous road to Marist included hard-fought battles with multiple injuries that set her back physically and mentally.

While Donnelly was recently ruled out for the rest of this season with a knee injury, the recovery process will not be as harrowing as what she had to go through in the early part of 2022. 

After months of uncertainty, Donnelly was diagnosed with and overcame Legionnaires’ Disease, an extreme type of pneumonia that not only threatened her athletic career but her life.

She came into Marist as an obvious recruiting find. Listed at 6-foot-5, Donnelly specializes in interior defense and has given the Red Foxes more opportunities to score inside the paint, in addition to leading the team with 37 blocks. She even set a program record during her time at U-Mass Amherst with 10 blocks in a single game against Holy Cross. 

For Donnelly, who has played on opposite ends of the country for UMass and the University of Hawai’i, she sought an opportunity to play near where she grew up so her parents could watch her play. Marist recruited Donnelly all three times she was on the search for a new home base.

“This time around, I really wanted to be closer to home just for my family aspect,” Donnelly said. “I really want them to come to all of my games and really make my support system a lot closer to me.”

Home for her is a small town called Vestal, close to Binghamton University. Despite her tall family, Donnelly’s parents never played organized sports. Her brother and sister played basketball at a lower college level, but Donnelly was the first in her family to take on basketball when she started playing when she was only four years old.

Fast-forward to her collegiate basketball career, Donnelly became the first freshman since 2014-15 to start every game for UMass Amherst, averaging 5.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks in the 2019-20 season. With a great debut season under her belt, things were looking up for the center. Her defensive ability and size were valued greatly in the post. Then injuries came into play.

Donnelly was only able to play six games in her sophomore season as she dealt with injuries throughout her last two seasons in college, which also coincided with the struggles of the pandemic. Compared to her freshman year, Donnelly had seen the best and worst parts of being a college athlete.

“Playing through COVID was one of the most difficult experiences of my life,” Donnelly said. “My family couldn’t come see me [play]. My freshman year at UMass, my family came to every game and I’d get dinner with them after, I was able to stay really close to my life back home with my sister and my brother. And then when COVID happened, to kind of call that off, and that was on top of being really injured. Not only was I isolated from them, but injuries kept me isolated from the team.”

With COVID already shortening the season, Donnelly needed a change of scenery to start fresh after unfortunate circumstances. She transferred to the University of Hawai’i for her junior year. Despite COVID being a big issue on the islands of Hawai’i, she cherished living in an entirely different world.

“It was a really great life experience, even if it didn’t end up like the way I wanted it to,” Donnelly said. “I’m so very grateful just to have that because I never thought I would be able to travel to Hawai’i on vacation let alone play there, as well as see places like Los Angeles and Las Vegas.”

With the new environment and sunny skies, Donnelly began her season with the Rainbow Wahine, appearing in the first eight games of their season. Her best game featured numbers she was used to in her first two seasons at UMass, scoring 10 points with five rebounds. Things were becoming normal again for the center.

That’s when everything changed. 

After playing in what would be her last game for Hawaii against the University of Nevada Las Vegas, Donnelly flew back home to New York before returning back to campus—over 4,000 miles away from her hometown of Vestal.

 In December of 2021, COVID began to spike during the holiday season, which caused a delay in Donnelly’s flight back to Hawaii. Many of her teammates tested positive for COVID as well.

With stress already overwhelming Donnelly’s world of returning to her life once again, she returned to campus on Dec. 26 and was gearing up for her first practice.

“The first day of practice back I feel terrible, and I’m thinking I did get COVID,” Donnelly said. “I get tested, which comes back negative, so I’m thinking maybe it’s the flu. I get tested four more times, all negative, and I’m still feeling really, really bad. The biggest thing for me was I felt like I couldn’t breathe, it felt like someone was constantly pushing down on my chest, and if I would try to take a deep breath, it was really intense pain.”

With her symptoms still unidentifiable, Donnelly would go through a Z-Pak antibiotic treatment to attempt to solve the problem and treat it as a bacterial infection. When her condition didn’t improve, she began to see a lung specialist to diagnose any possible problems in her respiratory system. A breathing test revealed the possibility of blood clots in her lungs, meaning no physical activity until a CT scan could be performed.

“I was thinking, ‘What am I going to do?’” Donnelly said. “What do I tell my parents, my coaches? I’m feeling really scared because I don’t know what this means for me, not even just in terms of basketball, but my life?”

What the scan revealed was no sign of blood clots, but evidence of ground-glass nodules (GGNs) at the top of her lungs, which often are related to many lung diseases, including lung cancer. After another round of antibiotics, she felt her body starting to weaken.

“At this point, maybe I’m just done. Maybe this is just the end of the road for me. I was trying to make peace with that,” she said.

Three months into her sudden downward spiral, she had one shot left: an appointment with an infectious disease specialist. Since Donnelly had dealt with symptoms for so long, the specialist had doubts if anything would read on the test. Donnelly insisted.

“This is my last option before I have to throw in the towel and admit basketball is done for me.”

Donnelly proceeded to give around 15 blood samples to test for lung infections. Two weeks later, she got her test results back with a diagnosis, testing positive for Legionnaires’ and mycoplasma pneumonia, which has fewer than 20,000 cases in the United States per year.

After testing positive, the road to recovery was thankfully short. With antibiotics specifically for mycoplasma pneumonia, Donnelly immediately felt relief in her chest and began to start her next uphill battle, getting back on the court. 

Beyond all of the testing, consultations, and treatment she received from people in the medical field, Donnelly gave credit to the mental health resources provided to her by the University of Hawai’i. She was given a mental health specialist—as all student-athletes are upon request—free of charge throughout her battle with the disease.

“She was my rock during that entire thing,” Donnelly said. “I was doing the best I could to advocate for myself as a 20-year-old who doesn’t know what’s wrong. It was a toss-up between staying positive and being ready to make peace with the fact that this might be it. But it made me a lot stronger.”

Donnelly faced some of the worst luck any college athlete could have, and now has found a new home— thousands of miles closer to where she grew up—to continue to better her career as a member of the Red Foxes women’s basketball team as well as an advocate for student-athlete mental health. Transferring from school to school was hard enough for her.

“You kind of feel as if you’re a problematic person and that’s going to seem less attractive when you’re trying to go to your next school. Even though on paper going to three different schools can look unappealing, it all makes sense to me.”

On the court, head coach Brian Giorgis touted Donnelly’s traits at the beginning of the season.

“The thing I love about her is her leadership,” Giorgis said to Center Field in the fall. “I would make her a captain, except she’s only been here for months. She’s been such a positive teammate for these guys, it’s incredible. She’s been through a tough three years.”

Now the focus lies on her basketball career. Donnelly meshed comfortably with AAU teammates Kiara Fisher and Zaria Shazer on the Red Foxes, finding her role as the team’s starting center in Giorgis’ farewell campaign. 

Donnelly proved herself to be the team’s defensive anchor in the middle, swatting away a league-high 1.8 shots per game before her untimely knee injury in a game at Quinnipiac in early February.

Though the injury news was disappointing, Donnelly has plans beyond the court for her time in Poughkeepsie. Working with the director of student-athlete enhancement Alyssa Gates, Donnelly proposed the idea of starting a group to prioritize student-athlete mental health at Marist. With the big project in the works, Donnelly says there is a representative from almost every Marist athletic team on campus in the group.

“One of the hardest things about being a college athlete is that you feel very alone at times, and you feel very isolated,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re on a team or individual sport, it can feel very much like the weight the world is on your shoulders and your shoulders alone. And one thing I’ve learned is that everyone is feeling that way. Even reaching out to a friend, a teammate, someone you know from study hall can make all the difference.”

Edited by Luke Sassa and Jonathan Kinane

Photo from Kira Crutcher

Leave a Reply