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Healthier Lawson has had a season of a lifetime for Connecticut Sun

By Mike DiMauro

Publication: The Day

Published October 05. 2012 4:00AM

Mohegan - Kara Lawson happily admits her teammates think she's nuts. Not because she likes eating nuts raw, either. It's just all her other foods that prompt wrinkled noses. That's when they think, you know, she might be knitting with only one needle.

After all, with all the deliciousness around us, who could possibly want to find their salvation in ... kale?

But have you checked your closets lately? Leafy green vegetable lovers could be lurking.

Because it is during quieter moments that Lawson, the conscience of the Connecticut Sun, flashes the occasional smirk.

"I've never seen some of my teammates eat kale before. I didn't even think some of them knew how to spell it," Lawson was saying Thursday. "Now I see them put it in a smoothie on the road. Kale was never part of their vocabulary. So there may not be verbal affirmation. But I know some of it is rubbing off."

The "it" in this case is Lawson's steadfast devotion to a vegan lifestyle.

There's that word. Vegan. Yeesh. Vegan. It might even conjure the classic scene from "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" when Aunt Voula learns Ian doesn't eat meat. She hollers the immortal line, "What do you mean, you don't eat no meat?" The entire room stops and plates break in the background, amid gasps all around.

Vegan. Yes. Vegan. This just in: Get over it. Vegans eat foods that are strictly plant-based. No animal products. Not a difficult concept. And really, have you seen what it's done for Lawson? OK, so it's simplistic, perhaps, to attribute Lawson's nutritional preferences to this season of a lifetime. But Lawson herself draws a line connecting the two.

"I have theories," Lawson said Thursday, after the Sun's final practice before tonight's biggie with Indiana at Mohegan Sun Arena (8 p.m. ESPN2, the Eastern Conference finals). "Sometimes Jeremy (trainer Jeremy Norman) thinks all my theories are crazy. I can tell by the way he looks at me.

"But one of the reasons for this season is that it takes time for a body to heal," Lawson said, alluding to previous knee discomfort. "As athletes, our goal is rush that process. I've lost a little weight. Four or five pounds means every step is four or five pounds less on my knee. Then my nutrition."

Lawson and her husband, Damien Barling, initially decided to go vegetarian. They were never big into milk-based products anyway and figured going vegan wouldn't be such a perilous leap. And the more information they gathered, the less inflammation she felt.

"I'd say the most important thing it does is help the minutes she's able to play," said Barling, the nattily clad guy in the front row at all Sun home games. He's also the household's chief shopper and chef.

"She averaged 30 minutes through the regular season then 36 through first two playoff games. Now after a physical series against New York, a bus ride home, she wakes up feeling pretty good," he said. "A vegan diet is like a natural anti-inflammatory diet. The food we eat reduces the inflammation in your body. Traditional American foods can increase it. You reduce inflammation, your body feels better, you play longer stretches."

Barling's theory positively sings, especially considering his wife's penchant for wielding daggers in the fourth quarter of games this season. The fourth quarter: shadows lengthen, time grows desperate, legs weaken. But Lawson? She's made 18 of 38 3-pointers (47 percent) in the fourth period of games this season, 41 of 44 free throws (93 percent) and has 29 assists.

This is why Lawson will get votes for all-WNBA first team.

"Athletes spend a lot of time combating inflammation. One way to do that is to take Aleve or Tylenol if something really flares up," Lawson said. "I was like every other player that way. I didn't abuse it or anything, but if I felt sore the morning of a game I'd pop a couple of Aleve. Over the course of a four- or five-month season, I might have taken 100-150. I've taken one this year. From 150, to one. I needed it when I sprained an ankle in San Antonio. What's the difference? To me it's been nutrition."

It's even spawned a Web site, "Laws On Wellness," (combine "laws" and "on" and you get "Lawson"). Lawson and Barling run the site with Heather Carmack Millbach of Niantic, a wife and mother of two, fellow Vegan and killer cook.

"We kind of started it really to keep records, like 'hey, remember when we made that?'" Lawson said. "Our families think we're crazy. Still do. Like 'what do you eat?' We wanted to put up recipes so family and friends see it tastes good and you're not crazy being vegan."

Barling and Carmack Millbach met in a kickboxing class. They both realized they were unique in wanting to work out with the verve of basic training. A friendship was born.

"Heather is really good at coming up with new recipes and ideas, different blog entries," Barling said. "I contribute mostly to different meals. Heather's desserts have been huge. Kara's mostly big with the training traveling part."

The Web site can teach you how to make pasta from zucchini, pesto from kale, marinara from sun dried tomatoes and dates, chia seed pudding, "Heather Bars" (Carmack Millbach's take on Larabars) and hundreds of other good-and-good-for-you creations. It requires time and planning. Many trips to Whole Foods in Glastonbury. But then, the result is Barling and Carmack Millbach running marathons and Lawson making every big shot.

This should be of great comfort for the Sun and their fans. The woman with the ball in her hands does mental toughness all day, every day.

"I knew if I got the opportunity that this is where we'd be," Lawson said. "I have great confidence in what I can do and what I can bring out of people. I live to play this time of year. It brings out the best in me. Always has."

m.dimauro@theday.com

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