Introducing Carey Kauffman: A March Madness Special

Featuring a Wavemaker Conversation with one of the most inspiring players you've never heard of.

Carey Kaufmann’s game face is a window into an indomitable spirit.

In 2017, I sat down with Kauffman — number 23 — to learn how her experience as a basketball player helped her to move forward after the most devastating personal pain imaginable.

I got to know Carey Kauffman serendipitously some years ago here in Atlanta. We’d bump into each other at the Dancing Goats Coffee Bar — the first place I’ll be returning to when I’m fully vaccinated.

Kauffman is the daughter of three-time NBA all-star Bob Kauffman.

As a 6-foot-2 starter for the Duke University Blue Devils between 1991 and 1995, Carey Kauffman was tall by the standards of the day.  Most women her size played center.  Not Carey.  She played guard and forward.

I decided I didn’t want to be inside waiting for the ball. I wanted to have the ball and decide what to do with it. So, that was my personality.

Kauffman was recognized as a force during her freshman year, when the college newspaper of UNC, Duke’s arch-rival, mentioned her as someone who could be “hazardous to the Tar Heels’ health.” 

Ooh, I like the way that sounds. “Hazardous to the Tar Heels’ health.” That’s great [if] that’s the only thing you can say as a Duke graduate, that you might be hazardous to their health. So, that’s good, I’ll take that!

As a senior, in 1995, Kauffman played in one of the most grueling battles in March Madness history — Duke versus Alabama — which went into four overtimes — making it the longest women’s NCAA Tournament game ever.

When it comes to that fourth overtime, your coach can’t do it for you. You have to rely on yourself to make those decisions and understand, “I’ve got to get me through.”

And when your own game is not going the way you’d hoped?

Even after you’ve missed four or five shots, you’ve just got to take another shot. If it’s your shot, you take it. If your shot’s not going in, you can always play good defense. You can always rebound. You can always get back on defense. You can always play strong.

In 2008, Carey Kauffman had to reimagine a way to play strong.

Her son, Conor, was born with a rare lung disease called PCD, and could not survive it. One of his siblings would also be diagnosed with a different rare disease.

In a way, Kauffman’s life mission chose her. She asked herself:

… how can we take what we learn, and what I would have applied in [Conor’s] life, and how can I transition that to help other people? That, I felt like, was then my mission. 

The other thing that helped her get out of bed every morning:

… Conor had an older sister, and I couldn’t be a mom that would sit around in bed and not have her have a life either.  So, having that external motivation – even when you don’t feel like you have it internally – is really critical, and I think that’s what a team helps you do, and to have a meaningful reason to get past things. When things get hard, unless you have a meaningful “why,” it doesn’t matter what you have. You’ve got to have the “why.”

Carey Kauffman’s “meaningful why” — beyond her family — is to help people who are living with chronic illnesses and rare diseases “leverage their abilities … [and] get the most out of what they have no matter what the diagnosis or prognosis.”

If you go all in on the conversation we had in 2017, I believe you will find her indomitable spirit contagious.

Here’s a 74 second preview of the episode.

And here’s the full conversation.

To learn more about Carey Kauffman’s work as a health coach, educator and activist, or to join her in her mission, click here.

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