DIII Week: Adversity No Match for Kirkwood

Apr 7, 2016

Senior women's basketball player Jessie Kirkwood fought through a lingering spinal condition to start 10 games in her final season.

*This is one of a handful of stories on UD student-athletes and their experiences at the Division III level in honor of Division III week (April 4-10).

Part I: Track's Blaze Murfin (former D1 recruit)
Part II: Softball's Andrea Smith (CC transfer)
UD's Belltower newspaper feature on Kirkwood
DUBUQUE, Iowa – Despite facing a multitude of medical obstacles associated with her spinal condition, Jessie Kirkwood was grateful for a Division III experience that made her collegiate basketball dream come true.

Kirkwood was born with a spinal condition called Spina Bifida Meningocele, latin for “split spine”, that has required five “spinal cord detethering” operations and constant maintenance for the senior out of Hudson, Wis. Some of her everyday symptoms include daily back pain and numbness/tingling in her legs depending on severity of activity. Kirkwood has also experienced kidney stones, another byproduct of Spina Bifida.

“Essentially, my spinal cord is attached to tissues it shouldn't be and needed to be released,” said Kirkwood. “The reason it tended to re-tether approximately every 5 years was because of my growing (as I sprouted up my tethered spinal cord would hold me down causing a lot of pain and various symptoms).”

At birth, doctors doubted whether Kirkwood would ever walk, let alone pose a threat on the hardwood.

Her latest operation, in May of 2015, nearly sidelined her for her senior season at UD. With a slim chance of playing, Kirkwood persevered and played in the season opener while later setting career-highs in starts (10), games played (25), minutes per game (19.1), and points per game (3.4).

From day one, Kirkwood credits relationships and an-all around experience at UD for making her dream a reality. 

“Basketball wise, just with everything I’d been through with my back I knew it would be a good fit at the University of Dubuque, because it was with coaches who understood, Coach Noll knew me through AAU, but they really cared about me not just as a player, but as a person,” said Kirkwood. “I was really able to make sure it was a good fit for me both my health and academics.”

After leading her high school team in scoring, Kirkwood was ready to face a new challenge head on, despite what she previously faced.

“When I was first looking at schools, I sat down with Coach Noll after I came here and filled him in on my situation,” said Kirkwood. “This is what I’ve gone through, my lifting program’s going be a little bit different, there’s going to be different times where I’m having a really bad day so I might have to alter my practice plan.”

“Coach Noll was very understanding and by that time he knew the kind of player and person that I was and knew I wasn’t using anything to slack off, and that I was always going to give my full effort.”

Full steam ahead as Kirkwood filled the role player void with 34 appearances off the bench leading up to her senior year, while at the same time making an impact in the classroom.

"Being more of a role player, I was able to channel what I was able to do and embrace it,” said the three-time Academic All-Conference award winner. “Hard work on the court and off through the adversity I faced developed me as a player and as a person.”

The human health science major more than filled her role after starting eight of UD’s final nine games and scoring a career-high 13 points on 3-of-5 shooting against the eventual conference champions on the road on February 13.

Kirkwood credited “the community” for her success.

"Last spring, when I realized I was going to have to have a fifth back surgery, I missed quite a few days of class,” said Kirkwood. “Professors were really great, they stayed late and helped me in any way they could. They helped me thrive as a student, and I’ve made the Dean’s List every semester at a place that doesn’t feel like a school, but more like a community.”

With dream in hand, the senior walks the graduation stage in May.

“Since I was four years old, playing college basketball was something I dreamed about,” added Kirkwood. “Giving the medical obstacles I faced, Division III is what enabled me to make that dream a reality and I couldn't be more grateful for my experience at UD”.