NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Since elementary school, a small sticker tucked in the corner of her bedroom mirror hinted at Maddie Wright's athletic aspirations. Each time she brushed her hair, the words "NCAA Division I" stared back at her.
A dozen years later Wright sees something different when she looks in the mirror, a reminder of the hurdles she overcame to make that dream come true. Peeking out from the top of her jersey, right above the emblazoned Belmont logo, is an unmistakable two-inch scar across her throat.
"That's proof I went through something that not everybody could see," said Wright, a junior forward on the Belmont women's basketball team. "I went through something and I came out on the other side better. I look at it every day in the mirror and it makes me really appreciate where I am now."
During the summer before her sophomore year of high school in Chattanooga, Tenn., Wright was diagnosed with Graves' Disease, an autoimmune disorder characterized by an over-active thyroid gland. After living with its effects for the better part of a decade, Wright underwent surgery this past June to remove her thyroid entirely.
The procedure has given her a renewed energy to play the game she loves and a full grasp of the life she didn't realize she was losing.
Symptoms of Graves' Disease, which disproportionately affects women, are wide ranging and creep into nearly every system of a body. Wright first noticed them as a freshman basketball player in high school.
She could hardly run down and back the length of the court before intense fatigue engulfed her. Soon she endured sleepless nights marked by nagging anxiety. Her heart raced. Her hair began to fall out. She lost more than 20 pounds in a matter of weeks.
Wright and her worried parents, Rusty and Kelly, came north to Nashville to see a specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. The doctor made a nearly instant diagnosis. From across the room she could see Wright's swollen thyroid. The butterfly-shaped gland was bulging out from behind her collarbone.
For years she medicated to control the disease's symptoms, the most worrisome among them the irregular and elevated heart rate. Much of the struggle was more than physical though.
"It took a toll on my mind. I had a lot of doubts about myself," she said. "It was like trying to play basketball with a hand tied behind my back. I was so hard on myself because I couldn't see this, couldn't see my injury. I had a hard time accepting it and tried to push through it."
After coming to Belmont in 2016, Wright's condition fell into remission. She played a key reserve roll for the Bruins the past two years as the program rolled to Ohio Valley Conference championships and appearances in the NCAA Tournament.
Still, her weight fluctuated and her limited stamina kept her from contributing more than about 20 minutes per game.
That feels like a lifetime ago. The 6-foot-1 forward has started every game for the Bruins, averaging more than 24 minutes per contest. She's the team's fourth leading scorer at 8.8 points per game and third leading rebounder with 6.0 boards per game.
Most important, she finally feels healthy.
"I am so grateful every day," she said. "I didn't realize how long I had felt so bad. I'm really proud I get to find a new normal, find those new limits and play how I want to play.
"We always say in practice, 'Trust the process.' Right now I'm on the other side of that process. I went through it. I truly appreciate that process because it got me here."