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Still battling cancer, ESPN analyst & U. grad Holly Rowe embraces the madness of her busy schedule

Published March 17, 2017 6:40 pm

Sports on TV • Utah native is as busy as ever — in between chemotherapy treatments.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

She was speeding toward an airport last month when, somewhere between Tuscaloosa and Atlanta, a patrol car's lights flashed and an officer would end up giving her a speeding ticket for driving 20 mph over the limit.

But here's the thing about Holly Rowe: she can't slow down, not right now.

The ESPN broadcaster's calendar is swamped, just the way she wants it.



Rowe, a University of Utah graduate who still calls Salt Lake City home, has covered gymnastics in Alabama, the 2017 College Football Playoff national championship game in Florida and basketball in Kansas over the past few months.

In between, Rowe fights.

She is in her second bout with melanoma cancer that spread throughout her body. She underwent surgery last February to remove cancerous tumors, malignant tumors and 29 lymph nodes. The treatment she receives every 21 days staves off the disease.

The athletes and coaches and fans she sees most every other night, Rowe says, keep her alive.

"When I say sports have saved my life, I'm not saying that as a joke or lightly," she said. "It's given me things to look forward to and every single event I get to, someone is winning or losing."

Zero downtime

Now comes the Madness that Rowe so loves.

ESPN owns exclusive rights to the NCAA Women's Tournament, and Rowe has spent the last several weeks preparing for her 12th year covering the event. Each game will be special for Rowe, as is every competition — be it one of the many gymnastics meets or the Big 12 Conference tournament she covered two weeks ago.

At a recent Kansas basketball game, a 16-year-old battling lymphoma recently lost her hair. It was growing back, just like Rowe's did. They posed for a photo. Then Rowe broke down. The job, she said, "just floors me every time."

"You have no idea the impact of something you might be going through has," she said. "I take this responsibility very seriously. If I can help anybody, I will."

Her routine has next-to-no down time.

On the night she was pulled over for speeding in Alabama, Rowe had just wrapped up in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where the Alabama gymnastics team topped rival Auburn in its home gym last month. Instead of mingling with athletes, coaches or fans, she hurried to her rental car and hit the gas. There was a red-eye flight to Salt Lake City to catch, and the Atlanta airport is just over three hours east from the home of the Crimson Tide.

Rowe was in a rush to get home.

The 50-year-old ESPN broadcaster who was raised in Utah never had called a University of Utah event for ESPN. Until the opportunity arose to be on the mats as the Red Rocks hosted UCLA. Rowe grew up attending Utah gymnastics meets as a teenager. She told her producers, "I will crawl on my hands and knees, and I did."

Rowe was pulled over and ticketed, but she made her flight. She arrived in her hometown, drove to campus and watched as the Red Rocks inched by the Bruins at the Huntsman Center. There was another turnaround. Rowe had to catch a flight to Morgantown, W.Va., at 7 the next morning.

Back on the East Coast, she felt like she'd been hit by a truck.

"It was totally worth it," she said. "I need to be smarter in some ways, but these passion projects are helping."

A day after covering a recent Kansas Jayhawks win, she flew back to Southern California, drove to a hospital, sat in a chair on the oncology floor and got hooked up to a chemotherapy drip. An administrative assistant on the floor always comes ready with a series of timely sports questions for her.

Rowe is on a new immunotherapy clinical trial for a drug called Keytruda. It's curing people and saving lives, and her spirits are up more so than they are down. The treatment will end when new scans show her body is clear of cancer.

She has another scan scheduled Tuesday — smack-dab in the middle of March Madness.

"Every little thing frightens you," she said.

Grateful for distractions

She may be a face synonymous with some of ESPN's largest events, but Rowe pioneered female sports broadcasting in Utah before going national.

After she graduated from Utah, she worked for FOX 13, KSL Radio and The Davis County Clipper before transitioning to a television analyst role where she eventually became the color commentator for the Utah Starzz in the late 1990s.

Rowe, who joined ESPN full-time in 1998, has covered college basketball, football, volleyball, gymnastics, softball, swimming, track & field, the Little League World Series and a Women's World Cup.

There was no down time then, and there certainly isn't now.

"I'm so grateful to have distractions," she said. "I'm not saying that lightly."

Nothing is more therapeutic, she said, than descending into the Salt Lake Valley and seeing the Wasatch Range below. Rowe recently bought a townhome in downtown Salt Lake City. A walking lifestyle is more conducive for her because she needs to get out of the house more often to take her mind off work or her battle with cancer.

During Monday's women's selection show, Rowe plopped onto her couch and turned her focus to the television, she told her fans on Twitter.

The UConn Huskies — to no one's surprise — were awarded the top overall seed.

When Rowe was at a recent UConn women's basketball practice, she saw a pregame video that showcased 20 years worth of hustle plays by the Huskies. UConn, winners of 107 consecutive games and on a quest for a fifth straight national title, sent Rowe the clip. When the fear of another upcoming chemo session sets in, she watches that clip to empower herself.

Sports, she said, have saved her life.

And there's so much more to look forward to. The tournament will help her start scouting the talent pool for the upcoming WNBA draft this summer. She's already hit up a few college softball games to prepare for spring sports.

After that, Rowe plans to try something she's not as good at: vacation.

"I'm working on" relaxing, she said. "I do not do that well."

ckamrani@sltrib.com

Twitter: @chriskamrani

 

 

 

 

 

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