This article appears in the Jan/Feb 2005 edition of SchoolSports magazine.
Christina Wirth is plenty comfortable poking fun at herself. Even if it means revealing a quirky habit that she fears makes her seem a little kooky.
The Seton Catholic 6-foot-1 senior forward and SchoolSports All-American likes to make things symmetrical. If she brushes by a teammate and touches their left arm, she's compelled to touch their right arm as well. For symmetry's sake.
Speed bumps in a parking lot are also a real pressure cooker. Both sets of Wirth's tires must roll over the obstacle — she wouldn't even think about swerving to avoid the bump.
Wirth labels her actions "obsessive-compulsive disorder" or "OCD," but she reminds us that is a self-diagnosis. More to the point, she doesn't hide her delight when informed that such behavior is not uncommon for elite athletes.
After all, Wirth's very own idol, Michael Jordan, used to wear his North Carolina shorts under his Chicago Bulls uniform for every game. And Colorado Rockies pitcher Turk Wendell brushes his teeth between every inning, for Pete's sake.
"Gosh, that's a relief," says Wirth, who was named Player of the Year by The Arizona Republic as a junior and played on last summer's USA Basketball Women's Junior World Championship Qualifying Team. "The tendency to do stuff like that kind of vanished in the last year, and I thought I was growing out of it. But right now, it's worse than ever."
Not to worry. Chalk it up as a trait closely related to the rigors of success. It's simply how some detail-oriented folks are built. We'd bet the house that Wirth runs an exceedingly tight ship when it comes to allotting her valuable time. Right?
"You know, that's right," says Wirth, who ranks second academically in her class. "I'm not really a time waster. A lot of times, I'll make up charts for myself so I know, ‘OK, I'm doing this during the first part of the morning and I'm doing that next,' and so on. It's kinda how I work."
Naturally, the total-control theme carries over to Wirth's game. She averaged 24 points, 10.8 rebounds and 2.7 steals per game last year for the Sentinels, who finished 27-6 and made the state quarterfinals.
And Wirth wasn't just a one-hit wonder. She entered her senior season on pace to finish her career with more than 2,500 points, 1,000 rebounds, 300 steals, 250 assists and 100 blocks and was a major contributor on a Seton Catholic squad that reached the 2002 Class 3A state finals during her freshman campaign. The Sentinels had gone a combined 85-14 with Wirth in uniform entering this season.
"She imposes her will in every aspect of the game," says Seton Catholic 13th-year head coach Karen Self, 35. "She's a force. Teams have to bring two defenders to slow her down, and it opens up so much. Christina dominates on the glass. She gets a lot of putbacks and 3-point plays. But she makes her presence felt everywhere. Some kids rely on athleticism, but they don't play defense. Christina really puts pressure on the ball."
Wirth's assembly-line work ethic and broad skill set allow her to make an impact in whatever aspect of the game she's needed most. She was a dark-horse candidate to make the Junior World Championship squad last summer but outperformed higher-rated talents to earn a roster spot. She eventually played in every game for the gold-medal-winning U.S. team at the FIBA America's Junior World Championship Qualifying Tournament in Puerto Rico.
The standard of play that convinced the Team USA braintrust that Wirth belonged on the floor with some of the nation's best ballers is the same intangible that has Wirth bound for SEC power Vanderbilt next year.
"She has an ability to find what a team is looking for," says Self, a former Arizona State point guard who guided Seton Catholic to three consecutive Class 2A state titles from 1997-99. "She has an uncanny ability to find her niche with each team she's on, whether it needs a leader, a scorer, somebody to push the ball or whatever. She does a fantastic job of filling the void and chipping in and growing her role on the team."
"I think I have more of an attack mentality now than I did as a younger player," adds Wirth, who is rated the No. 13 girls' hoop player in the country by recruiting Web site Blue Star Basketball. "I was a little passive two years ago. Now I take advantage of what's given to me. I'm more deliberate in my approach."
Fact is, at her core Wirth is a problem solver. As a toddler, she was so knock-kneed that her doctors became concerned the condition would affect her development and her ability to move normally. Wirth endured months of wearing a brace every night and sometimes during the day to correct the problem.
"I used to army crawl around the house with that brace on when I was 3 or 4," says Wirth, who will turn 18 on April 18. "It was pretty pathetic. I still take some grief about that from my family from time to time."
As an eighth-grader, Wirth was shooting around at halftime of a Thanksgiving tournament game that Self attended. Self noticed the release and trajectory on the kid's shot were too slow and too low for the high school game and told Wirth so. The next time Self saw Wirth play the following spring, she was shooting the ball like a completely different player.
"In all my playing and coaching days, I've never seen a kid this driven," says Self, who also coached Wirth's older sister, Alana, a sophomore forward at Florida's Division II Barry University. "She's always asking, ‘What should I do next?' If I say her ball-handling needs to improve, she'll come back a few days later with a significantly better left and right hand. She analyzes her shooting form on video.
"From Day 1, she's never stopped. It's a tribute to her blue-collar work ethic that she was on that Junior World Championship team. (University of Tennessee freshman phenom) Candace Parker dunked twice in that team's first game, but there was Christina, wearing the same uniform."
So what's the secret? Can the OCD stuff be making that much of a difference?
"I'm just really competitive when it comes down to it," says Wirth. "I'm not really as laid back as I seem. If someone scores on me, the next time down the floor I'm determined to get them back. I get pretty intense."