ESPN's Holly Rowe has inspired many others through her courage

ESPN broadcaster Holly Rowe is pictured at the NCAA women's basketball Final Four on March 30 in Columbus, Ohio. (ESPN Images)
ESPN broadcaster Holly Rowe is pictured at the NCAA women's basketball Final Four on March 30 in Columbus, Ohio. (ESPN Images)

Mohegan – She beat cancer. There. Rather declarative, that.

And maybe that’s enough to explain why Holly Rowe will receive the 2018 Woman of Inspiration Award, the Connecticut Sun’s annual homage to courage, conviction and character, Sunday at Mohegan Sun Arena.

Except that Rowe, the ESPN sideline reporter who does cheerful as a habit, is about so much more than her physical conquest of a scourge.

Holly Rowe’s best trick of them all: She used cancer as the slingshot to silence something far more perilous: the little voice inside her head, the one we all have, the one that makes those nefarious 3 a.m. visits, the one that operates from fear and doubt, not love and compassion.

“This is going to sound weird,” Rowe was saying last week during a phone conversation, “but I’m a better person than I was before because I had cancer. I’ve been able to dig into what’s important to me as a person. I understand my support system better. I’ve learned to ask for help more.

“I’ve always shied away from showing my true self. Now I don’t care anymore. This imperfect, crazy version. In this weird way, cancer has allowed me to stop caring what others think and become this authentic version of myself.”

Rowe’s job left her little choice but to fight her fight publicly. She was diagnosed with skin cancer in 2016, leaving her keenly vulnerable: on television, losing her hair and gaining weight because of the chemotherapy. Sideline reporters, like all television personalities and others in the public eye, are often judged on appearance first.

And this is where Holly Rowe learned that this world is full of more compassionate people than perhaps we’re led to believe, particularly in today’s climate.

“I never set out to be so public, but because I’m in the public eye and have to be on TV and look a certain way, I’m thinking, ‘How do I do this job with all these other attractive people?’” Rowe said. “I have fuzzy stubble on my head. The chemo caused me to gain weight and then I have all these insecurities anyway.

“One of the most down days I ever had was the day we were doing a UConn-South Carolina (women’s) game,” Rowe said. “One of the side effects of chemo is skin rash. I had a rash all over my face. I called Rebecca Lobo. I don’t cry. I’m a strong person. But I said, ‘I can’t be on TV today.’ I tweeted ‘so sorry, I look hideous. I’m aware. Don’t tweet me and tell me about it.’ It kind of went viral.”

And this is why she is the Sun’s Woman of Inspiration. Skin rashes and weight gain be damned. Holly Rowe is a monument to the beauty of life’s unintended consequences. Cancer, which threatens lives, became the catalyst for Holly Rowe’s new respect for … life. And she’s brought legions along with her, spitting in the eye of one little voice at a time.

“I’m always a little uncomfortable when people say ‘inspiring.’ I really do feel like a normal, average girl slugging through life,” Rowe said. “I’m very grateful that if I’ve been inspiring to anyone else, that matters to me.

“I was at a Kansas basketball game and a little gal who was 16 comes up and wanted a picture with me. She had a short pixie haircut. Her mom said she lost all of her hair at the same time I did. She would wear a beanie cap to school and was feeling awkward.

“Then her mother said, ‘as soon as you started going bald, she stopped wearing her beanie cap to school.’ I started bawling. That really mattered to me.”

But wait, there’s more.

“One of the women’s basketball officials was going through breast cancer,” Rowe said. “She was trying to find a wig to officiate with. But it’s hard because you sweat as you run up and down the floor. When she saw me on TV, she said, ‘if you went on TV bald, screw it, I’ll be bald officiating my games.’ If one person’s had an easier moment because I’ve gone through this, that matters to me.”

And now Holly Rowe, a beacon to the power of living your authentic life, is cancer free. She’ll be here Sunday at Mohegan Sun Arena. She’ll be on television frequently this fall as only the best sideline reporter of them all. Rowe has this enviable quality of adding some humanity to her questions, softening even the grumpiest coaches at halftime.

“People have been so sweet,” she said. “I was working at Florida State football practice (Thursday) and saw the video the Sun tweeted about me. Rebecca, Geno and (WNBA president) Lisa Borders all talking about me. I just broke down in the football office.

“People start walking in and I’m like, “oh, I’m just here crying.’ I could not have gone through this without love, spirit and prayers. I’m constantly amazed by strangers. If there’s a more grateful girl in America, you haven’t met her.”

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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