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A concussion’s threatening WWCFL star Katie Miyazaki’s dream of playing for Canada

Katie Miyazaki (24)'s starred with the Saskatoon Valkyries, but concussions threaten her career.Katie Miyazaki's long been a prominent Canadian sports presence on the basketball side; she won two national championships with SFU, transferred to Saskatchewan after the Clan left for the NCAA, then led the Saskatchewan Huskies to the CIS championship game in 2011 and to a sixth-place finish in 2012. Recently, she's taken on a different challenge, becoming a star defensive back with the Saskatoon Valkyries, helping them during their undefeated runs to the 2011 and 2012 WWCFL championships and shooting for a place on the team that's going to represent Canada at the 2013 women's world tackle football championships. Yet, her dream of competing for her country has become endangered thanks to a concussion she suffered playing football, one she still hasn't recovered from 12 weeks later.

"During a football game, there was one hit where I kind of hit her with the side of my head," Miyazaki said. "I felt dazed."

Miyazaki said the dazed feeling went away quickly, though, motivating her to return to the game. She also played touch football a day later with no apparent problem, but everything went wrong a few days afterwards.

"Three days after, I couldn't get out of bed," she said. "I felt so tired and nauseous."

12 weeks later, things have improved slightly, but Miyazaki's life is still being drastically affected. Problems have showed up for her in everything from classes to watching volleyball.

"I'm slightly dizzy and more tired than usual," Miyazaki said. "Things still look like they're moving."

She said things get drastically worse if she doesn't have enough rest.

"If I don't get enough sleep, I can't concentrate at all," she said.

Miyazaki said this isn't her first concussion.

"I had a few growing up as a child," she said. "Not all were diagnosed. This is at least number five."

She said this one's more serious, though.

"This is the longest I've ever had to sit out," she said. "It's frustrating."

Miyazaki said sitting out hasn't been easy, as competitive instincts make it tough to even leave a game briefly after a head hit.

"You feel 'I'm fine, I don't want to come out,'" she said. "You get your bell run quite a bit and you feel fine."

What's really hurt for Miyazaki is that her transition to football was going so well. She'd previously played in high school, as her school had a tackle football team for girls in Grades 8-10, and she clearly hasn't forgotten the game. She played well enough with the Valkyries to make the list of 92 people who are being considered to represent Canada at the 2013 world championships. She said adjusting to football again was a challenge, but it was also a terrific opportunity to indulge her competitive side after her CIS basketball eligibility expired following this past season.

"It's a great transition for me, being done basketball and having football to go to," Miyazaki said. "It's definitely different, but I love it."

Miyazaki said playing with the Valkyries has been a great experience for her.

"I've absolutely loved it," she said. "I think I've been really lucky to be in Saskatoon."

She said the high level of instruction in particular's been great.

"All our coaches are ex-Huskies, ex-Hilltops," Miyazaki said. "They all love the sport."

Women's tackle football's still an emerging sport in Canada, though. The WWCFL only started in 2011, and although it has seven teams, they're only in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Miyazaki said the Valkyries have developed plenty of local support, though.

"We've been building up our fanbase," she said. "I'm hoping with our success we can kind of build it up, especially from the young ages too."

Miyazaki said there are more and more chances for women to play football, starting with flag leagues for younger players and working up to tackle football.

"There are all these opportunities," she said. "I'm hoping it just continues to grow."

One brand of women's tackle football is getting plenty of attention in Canada. That would be the Lingerie Football League, which is only playing north of the border this year, and despite the issues raised with their Toronto franchise last year, has bounced back to feature teams in Toronto, Abbotsford (B.C.), Regina and Saskatoon. Miyazaki said she's not enthused with the LFL, though.

"I'm not a huge fan," she said. "I don't see why [football] has to be played in that manner."

Indeed, it doesn't. Women's tackle football is gaining popularity as a serious sport, and a key step along those lines is the IFAF World Championships. The men's championships have been going on since 1999, and a women's championship was founded in 2010. Canada did well there too, claiming silver (the same as they did on the men's side in Austria last year). Miyazaki said the world championships are a crucial way to build the credibility of women's tackle football.

"It's definitely a huge step," she said. "It's a big step to somewhat equality in the sport."

She said she dreams of representing Canada at the 2013 championship, and given that she's already been selected as one of the 92 players to attend training camp, she has a good shot. Only 45 players will be on the team, so the odds are still stiff, but Miyazaki said she's motivated.

"This opportunity to play for Team Canada, it's given me a new goal," she said.

Her long and slow concussion recovery process has given her some doubts about football, though.

"It kind of puts things in perspective," Miyazaki said. "It makes you consider what's important and if putting your body through it is worth it. Your brain's kind of necessary. You only get one."

Despite worries about further concussions, though, Miyazaki's still hoping she'll recover in time to try and earn a spot on Team Canada.

"I still want to get back to football," she said. "If I don't get back into it in a few months, I don't know what I'll do."

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