ANACONDA — The doctors were murmuring the word “cancer”.
Sydnie Peterson, or Syd, as she usually goes by, had always been an energetic girl who has long been a standout basketball player. But things were, well, they were just wrong.
She weighed 64 pounds as a freshman at Anaconda High School. Her health reports always said “failure to thrive” and the bright-eyed blonde who once was called ‘Barbie’ while being trash-talked was sick for weeks on end.
Her parents, Corey and Steph, were terrified. Hospital visits were common. So were the tests that poked and prodded, searching for answers to her mysterious ailment.
Then, one day, a specialist suggested Syd might have Celiac’s disease, an autoimmune disorder. A test, which consisted of a surgery that entered her intestines and made several small cuts, confirmed the suspicions.
It wasn’t cancer, but she soon learned it would be a disease she’d live with for the rest of her life.
Fast-forward three years. Now a senior, she’s become one of the best point guards in the state. Frontier League schools and junior colleges have been giving her serious looks. A multi-sport athlete, she was named All-conference in volleyball this season and will be chasing honors in softball as well.
The future is bright for her.
But on the day of her diagnosis, early in her freshman year of high school, Syd and her family weren’t thinking of sports.
They were thinking about her life.
“When they first told me, I was really scared,” Peterson said. “It was a huge change for me and that’s when I really knew this was serious.”
Celiac’s is not an easy thing to live with for many reasons.
The disease attacks the intestines, causing her villi (small, finger-like projections that help absorb nutrients) to lie down. Instead of turning into fuel for the body, food basically passes straight through her.
It causes pain, nausea, indigestion and malnutrition.
“When I was eating gluten and not healthy, I was just always sick,” Peterson said. “I did not feel good, I didn’t want to do anything.”
As if those aren’t bad enough, Celiac’s also stunted her growth. Peterson stands 5-foot-9 now, but was three inches shorter a year ago. She’s also gained 20 pounds in that time and is a much healthier 120.
There’s no cure for Celiac’s disease. The only way to deal with the disease is to eat gluten-free, which meant giving up one of her favorite foods — Big Macs. It also meant the family had to retool their diet and menu choices.
She can’t even go down a bread aisle for fear of triggering what Corey calls a “ding,” which means that if she comes into contact with gluten, the villi lie down for up to six months.
As the family has come to understand the disease better, they’ve been able to make specific arrangements for her to eat in a way that doesn’t make her sick. That said, it doesn’t make explaining the situation to people unfamiliar with the disease any easier.
“We had to send her with food all the time,” Corey Peterson said. “I felt bad for the coaches because they didn’t know. Going to a restaurant is a nightmare because, well, we’ll say she’s Celiac and they look at her and say, “Well, is it a life choice or is it for a diet?”’
Gluten-free dieting has become a popular trend across the country. But for the 1 in 133 people the University of Chicago Medicine estimates suffer from the disorder, it can be frustrating — and that’s if they’re not one of the approximately 2.5 million Americans who are undiagnosed.
Syd and her family have taken to calling it an allergy. It isn’t, but for them it’s the easiest way to take it seriously. With many restaurants offering gluten-free options, living with the disease has become easier, but sometimes special arrangements have to be made.
For example, Fairmont Hot Springs Resort was where Syd and her friends wanted to eat for their prom dinner. Corey called the manager, a friend of his, and asked if they were gluten-free.
“They said yes,” Corey said. “And I said, ‘all right, let me ask you this, do you cook it on another grill?’ They said no. Then they actually went and bought new pans specifically for true gluten-free cooking.”
Syd has not let her disease get in the way of what’s become a tremendous basketball career.
Having enough energy is one of her biggest problems, an issue that she offsets by taking Vitamin D pills. These, along with water and a diet watched closely by her family have helped her transform into a star athlete for the Copperheads.
Along with regular trips to the weight room with her dad and a tremendous amount of willpower, Syd has been able to push past the tendrils of the disease attempting to hold her back.
A point guard in Anaconda’s fast-paced offense, she’s averaging 14 points, three assists, four steals and three rebounds, all while shooting 44 percent from the field. She’s scored 42 points her last two games and, yes, playing college basketball is firmly in her dreams.
Rocky Mountain College, Montana Tech, Montana State-Northern, Providence as well as two junior colleges — North Idaho College and Treasure Valley (Oregon) — have all been in contact.
“It would mean a lot. I think it’s just how much I love basketball,” Syd said. “I practice almost every day because I want to play in college.”
She carves out time to work on her game before school, before games and once, her dad said, even at 12:30 a.m. because “her shot didn’t feel right.” Among her inspirations is Ali Hurley, perhaps the best girls basketball player ever at Anaconda and went on to play for Montana.
Syd would like to carve out a name of her own in college and is well on the way to getting that chance.
A top-10 student at Anaconda, she also does quite a bit of community service as part of National Honor Society, which is something close to her heart.
Beloved by her teammates, she’s taken a strong leadership role on the team and the other girls — especially the underclassmen — look up to her.
Described endearingly as coachable, both by Anaconda head coach Brian Evans and her trainer Kellie Johnson, it’s a trait that’s made her popular at camps and during AAU ball.
“What I love about her is not only how talented she is, but the work ethic she has,” Evans said. “She makes everyone around her better. When she’s on the court we’ve got a chance to win every game just because she brings out the best in everyone around her.”
Even with all of Syd’s success, it hasn’t always been easy going.
In fact, after her sophomore season she was close to quitting the sport entirely.
Frustrated with her health, her game, and several other factors, she was beginning to think it was time to give up the sport she had adored since second grade. Her dad decided to call Johnson and asked her to talk with Sydnie.
She happily obliged.
“I asked her dad for her number and while there’s a lot to be said about not overstepping your boundaries as a coach, I think there’s a lot to be said for trying to understand your players,” Johnson said. “We texted and called a lot and I’d ask her about her mentality going into practice and games.
“I was really trying to mentally coach her from a 1,000 miles away. That part of the game is so important.”
As the conversations progressed, Syd ultimately decided to continue her basketball career. Johnson has worked with her for the past three years and has seen tremendous growth in what she’s been able to do on the court.
Syd’s improved health has been one of the biggest gains and Celiac’s disease is something Johnson understands well — her sister has the disease. Johnson has been able to give Syd and Corey tips on making gluten-free food and staying healthy, which has been invaluable.
“I really understand what all comes in to play with that,” Johnson said. “Not having energy, just not playing well. As time has gone on, it’s something that she’s been able to adapt to, because it never really goes away.”
During the summer of 2016, Syd’s promising young basketball career led her to Germany.
She participated in a series of games against semi-pro teams as part of Northwest Basketball Camps (NBC) is an organization she has worked a lot with during her summers throughout high school.
NBC Camps help train young basketball, soccer and volleyball athletes.
Against the Germans her work paid off. She averaged 17 points per game and had what she called a “once in a lifetime” experience. They were all friendly contests and the teams always ate together after games, even exchanging numbers and adding each other on Snapchat.
She experienced gelato and hostels during a uniquely European experience. She also got a taste of the violence that plagues our world.
Late in her trip, a man claiming to be part of ISIS attacked a mall in Munich. Syd was 50 miles away and in practice when it started.
“My mom called me and asked me where I was and that’s when I started to get pretty scared,” Syd said. “The coaches were good and kept us calm and we all tried to get in touch with our parents.
“It was definitely an eye-opener.”
Corey, at work, checked his phone during a break. He had 19 messages from friends and family, all wondering if Syd was anywhere near the attack.
The next few days were trying for her family, wanting to get her out of Germany as soon as possible. Her father even mulled over the idea of flying over and getting her himself.
It’s an experience the entire family will never forget.
“The best feeling I ever had was watching her come through the turnstile in Missoula,” Corey said. “It was awful. They had to stay longer because they shut down the airports. But the NBC were pretty good about the whole thing, so it all ended up okay.”
With college on the horizon and the high school basketball season starting to hit the meat of its schedule, there’s a lot on Sydnie’s plate.
Anaconda has dreams of making the state tournament and there are younger players Syd wants to continue to help. After that softball season starts as she’ll have one last season to take the field as a Copperhead.
She has a significant academic scholarship to RMC but still is trying to figure out what she wants to study in college. Nursing is an option and there have been conversations with MSU-Northern and Montana Tech, but Sydnie still has some time to decide where she’ll end up.
If her dream of college basketball ends up becoming a reality, there’s a part of her that wants to user her platform to speak up for those with Celiac’s disease and help people understand the disorder.
It’s not that she wants to become the face of the disease, but having overcome so much, it matters to her that people with it know they can thrive.
“I don’t know if want to be a spokesperson or anything exactly like that,” Peterson said. “But talking about how I’m an athlete and dealing with the disease and maybe being an advocate, I think I would like doing that.”