Sue McKeown was diagnosed with scoliosis the summer before ninth grade.
The condition is a sideways curvature of the spine that occurs most often during the growth spurt just before puberty.
Although treatment is often unnecessary, McKeown’s form of scoliosis was severe enough to warrant surgery. She had two rods fused to her spinal cord and spent all of ninth grade at Marshall Middle School in a full body cast.
Yet rather than mope and feel sorry for herself, the ultra-competitive McKeown stayed busy by shooting baskets in gym class or doing whatever she could to stay active. Once the full body cast came off, McKeown’s athletic career took off.
The 1976 Janesville Craig graduate was captain of Big Eight Conference championship teams in basketball and track and field, a two-time all-WIAC selection at UW-Whitewater in basketball and softball and UW-Whitewater’s Sportswoman of the Year in 1997.
And upon hanging up her spikes in softball, McKeown served as an assistant coach at UW-Whitewater for six years before taking over as head coach in 1987, when she led the Warhawks to the NCAA Division III runner-up finish in her first season.
McKeown’s lifelong achievements have earned her a spot in the Janesville Sports Hall of Fame. She’ll join Patrick Campbell, John Furrer, Bennie Guerra and Andy Meehan as part of the 2019 class that will be inducted Saturday, May 11 at the Janesville Country Club.
“It’s truly an honor to even be considered for something like this,” McKeown said.
“I think back to where all started for me growing up on North Claremont Street. We’d play full-court games of basketball between our house and the neighbor’s house, or have bike races around the neighborhood.”
McKeown said the scoliosis diagnosis was a blessing in disguise.
“It certainly made me stronger because I had to swim and stay active to stay strong,” McKeown said. “Despite having the two rods on my spinal cord, I was able to play basketball, run track and play softball without any problem.”
McKeown was the point guard on Barb Dietz’s 1976 Craig team that won a Big Eight title but lost to Watertown in the sectionals. That was the first year the WIAA held a girls state tournament, with games played at the University of Wisconsin Field House in Madison.
Although McKeown and her teammates came up short in their bid for a state tournament berth, she eventually played a game at the Field House as part of an exhibition game between UW-Whitewater and the University of Wisconsin.
McKeown was an excellent shooter and ball handler, and with her quickness, a pesky defender.
Dianne Jones is the most successful women’s basketball coach in UW-Whitewater history. She was McKeown’s coach when the Warhawks won the 1980 WIAC title and advanced to the DIII tournament quarterfinals.
Jones said McKeown was the catalyst of that team.
“With what Sue went through as a child with her scoliosis, she developed an attitude that if I can do it, anybody can do it, and that rubbed off on the people around her,” Jones said. “She was high energy, and had that personality that was able to reach people.
“And it didn’t matter if she was playing or coaching. She led by example and was always there for everybody.”
Softball was McKeown’s favorite sport, but it wasn’t offered in high school yet, so she had to wait until college to play. She played second base and earned first-team all-WIAC honors in 1979.
Her favorite softball memories were traveling by bus with teammates around the Midwest, something she never thought she’d be able to do after taking a year off between high school and college to figure out what she wanted to do with her life.
Coaching offered McKeown a chance to give back to the college she loved. She served as an assistant in basketball for six years, helping the Warhawks to five winning seasons, and two seasons as the assistant softball coach.
In 1987, McKeown was offered the head softball job and jumped at the chance. She led the Warhawks to a runner-up finish at the DIII national tournament in her first season and was named the Midwest Region coach of the year in Division III.
“I learned from some great coaches like Barb Dietz, Betsy Moser and Dianne Jones, that it made me feel like I could be a head coach,” McKeown said. “And I had great assistants around me and players that did things the right way. That made my job a lot easier.
“The neat thing about that first year is that we were playing and beating schools from Florida and Arizona, where it was much warmer and they could play year round.”
McKeown got her degree in special education in 1982 and has worked with adults with special needs since 1990. She currently is a counselor in therapeutic recreation for adults with special needs at the Rec Plex Discovery Program in Pleasant Prairie and is as passionate about her job as she was playing and coaching sports. McKeown was inducted in the the UW-Whitewater Hall of Fame in 1997.
Sue McKeown has no plans of slowing down. Her back is holding up just fine.