Women’s basketball coach Diane Richardson had a harrowing battle with COVID-19.

TU women's basketball coach Diane Richardson

Down But Not Out

When Diane Richardson’s fever reached 104 degrees, her husband, Larry, helped drag her into the shower. There, he turned on all the jets and soaked her with cold water. It lowered her temperature but only temporarily. Soon the fever, having weakened but not left her body entirely, returned
to its frightful peak.

This scenario repeated multiple times during Richardson’s debilitating battle with COVID-19. The TU women’s basketball coach eventually recovered from the disease and returned to the sideline to coach her team but not before some of the scariest moments of her life.

“The night before the [presidential] inauguration we were really, really bad,” says Richardson, 62. “We were watching the lights on the Mall representing all the people that died from COVID. I said, ‘Larry,
we cannot die.’ I sent out a text and I said, ‘I don’t want to be a light,’ meaning those lights on the Mall. I want to be here in the present for my children.”

Her ordeal began on Jan. 4. The team had just returned from a game against James Madison in Virginia when her stomach began to hurt. The next morning, she got a call from a team athletic trainer. She had tested positive for COVID-19.

How she became infected remains a mystery. Since the very earliest days of the pandemic, no one took the novel coronavirus more seriously than Richardson. Her daughter, Dana, suffers from cerebral palsy and other pre-existing conditions. Richardson, her husband and their two sons knew that they could not risk exposing Dana to the disease. When Richardson left the house, she always wore a mask (sometimes two), usually donned gloves and was militant about washing her hands and physically distancing.

None of that mattered. Twenty minutes after her stomach started feeling off, she had a temperature of 102. Quickly her husband and their two sons became sick as well. Miraculously, Dana and her live-in caretaker, Rosa, did not.

The Richardsons immediately began isolating in their bedroom while their sons did the same downstairs. The next three weeks were as harrowing a time as Richardson has gone through
in her life.

Neither she nor her husband could keep a morsel of food down for the first five days. When her 84-year-old mother called, she and Larry, 63, would put on their best “CNN voices” to try to assure her that they were OK, even though they weren’t. Their daughter would bang on their bedroom door, but they couldn’t open it.

“We could hear Dana and Rosa laughing and giggling and singing,” she says. “It just made us feel good. But it also reminded me that we had to stay alive to be able to take care of her.”

They were so weak just picking their heads up from their pillows was a challenge. They would set an alarm for every two hours to force themselves to get up and walk around the bedroom. One night, Richardson didn’t hear Larry’s normal snoring. “All along people kept telling me, ‘Don’t lay on your back.’ Throughout the whole time we would tell each other, ‘Turn over, turn over,’” she says. “I woke up and I looked over, and he was on his back. I told him, ‘Turn over, get off your back.’ Nothing. Nothing. Then I touched his belly, and it wasn’t going up and down. I started crying, ‘No! No! No!’ and hitting him.”

Thankfully, Larry came to and started breathing. It was one of several times Richardson, usually a relentlessly positive person, thought they might not make it. Always a coach, Richardson didn’t want to distract her players by letting them know the direness of her condition. Instead, she would send inspirational messages to them on a group text.

“She brings a sense of family to the program,” junior guard Shavonne Smith says. “She doesn’t feel like a coach. She feels like, if anything, a grandmother. She always had us thinking that everything was positive. It never seemed like it was really a battle.”

Gradually, they began to show signs of improvement.

“When we finally could get up and walk, we would take a few steps,” Richardson says. “There’s a couch in my bedroom, so we would say, ‘Let’s make it to the couch.’ We’d collapse on the couch and lay there for a while. And then there were days when we could get past the couch. We just kept pushing each other.”

Eventually they were able to start eating bananas before moving on to toast and oatmeal. She lost 15 pounds as a result of her illness.

“It was those 15 pounds I gained during the pandemic sitting in the house eating,” she says, laughing. 

Finally, on Jan. 26, Richardson felt well enough to contemplate returning to work. She emerged from the bedroom and walked up and down the stairs to test her stamina.

“I was so out of breath,” she recalls. “I probably took a nap after that.”

The next day she showed up at SECU Arena to surprise her team during a film session. When she walked into the room, her players reacted as if they had just won the national championship.

“It was an emotional moment,” Smith says. “Seeing that she made the effort to come back meant a lot. It showed us that whatever we’re going through, it’s not an excuse to give up. If Coach Rich can push through COVID, then we can push through the season and play hard for her.”

In the ensuing weeks, Richardson suffered from fatigue and occasional headaches, but
she was elated to be on the bench again. In her first game back, TU beat the College of
Charleston 90-81.

Richardson made the decision to go public with her plight because she wants everyone to understand the seriousness of COVID-19. 

“From a psychological standpoint, it’s really hard if you don’t have something to push for,” she says.
“It affects people so differently. I wanted people to understand that COVID is very, very real.”