Heartbreak and hope: Columbia's Abbey Hsu still learning to cope after Parkland, personal loss

Abbey Hsu never set out to be a spokesperson or an activist. She speaks because she knows it’s important, not because she feels called to it.

Hsu didn’t ask to be the face of the tragedies that befell her generation. But here she is.

At 17, Hsu survived the Parkland, Florida, shooting and endured the questions that followed. At 20, her father died from COVID-19 while fighting to save his patients from the widespread illness.

Now she’s 22, with both tragedies behind her, but never far enough away. The Columbia senior is simultaneously learning to process her own story while being asked to tell it to others.

Players across the country are exercising their right to be more than just the sport they play. But that’s not Abbey Hsu’s world.

All Hsu wants is to be defined not by the tragedies she’s endured, but by the game she loves.

How Abbey Hsu found basketball

Every now and then, Columbia women’s basketball coach Megan Griffith will get a text from Hsu.

“Full days,” the message reads, followed by a heart emoji.

It's a reference to Jim Valvano's iconic ESPYs speech, in which he says, "If you laugh, you think and you cry, that's a full day."

Hsu’s days are often full.

“She’s a real, raw person,” Griffith said. “We just keep empowering her to lean into that because it has such an amazing effect on the people around her.”

Sharing her emotions doesn’t come easy to Hsu. Opening up has been a lifelong process, that even those closest to her have had to work for. She gives empathy readily, but asking for it — even indirectly — is a challenge.

“The first three years of our relationship, she never complained about anything,” Hsu's girlfriend, Lia Sammaritano, said. “And I’d say, ‘You can complain to me!’ But she was always like, ‘What is there to complain about?’”

From childhood, Hsu wanted to be self-sufficient. She was the youngest of seven kids, but in many ways, the most mature. Abbey never had to be told to floss. She knew how to make a bed using “hospital corners,” and she didn’t even want pocket money to go to the movies with friends.

Her mother tried, repeatedly, to coax her daughter into taking some spending money, but Hsu refused.

“I’m going to get a job,” she told her mom.

And as soon as Hsu turned 16, she did.

Basketball also served as a catalyst for her adult-like persona. Because there were so many kids in the Hsu household, they often hung out in trios or pairs. Abbey was attached to her brother, Zach, who is three years older, even if he wasn’t always thrilled to have her around. But Abbey knew how to game the system.

When Zach headed out to meet up with friends, Abbey followed a few minutes later and worked her way into the group with a harmless fib: “Mom said you have to let me play with you.”

“I never said that,” Terry Hsu said with a laugh.

But whatever Zach was doing, Abbey wanted to do, too. When he learned to ride a bike, so did she. When he started waterskiing, so did she. And when he picked up a ball, there she was. But basketball was different from the other activities. Zach played with his friends, but never competitively. Abbey took it a step further.

“I just kept coming back,” she said. “I loved every aspect, like even when they made us do conditioning, I just loved it.”

When she was seven, Abbey joined a rec league that didn’t keep score. Terry didn’t approve of the practice, so she counted herself, in her head. And every game, without fail, Abbey would be the leading scorer.

Abbey was always active, playing whatever sport she could — mostly whatever Zach was playing — but eventually, Terry nudged her to double-down on basketball. Taking seven kids to and from activities while maintaining a house and making dinner was more than enough for the stay-at-home mom. She couldn’t handle multiple sports. Abbey had an affinity for basketball, plus, it only took “shoes and a ball,” which was a bonus, Terry said with a laugh.

So basketball officially became her thing.

It also allowed Abbey to get a little extra attention, as her mom took her all over Florida for AAU tournaments.

Abbey pumped gas, calculated tips and read road signs to her mom, acting as more of a travel sidekick than a kid.

“She learned a lot from that,” Terry said. “It made her so much more ready for life.”

But there are some life events that nothing can prepare you for.

Parkland high school shooting

Parkland has become synonymous with one of the country’s most horrific mass shootings, but before that, it was just the town Abbey grew up in. The one where she learned to play basketball on a double-rimmed outdoor hoop. Where she first started crushing on Sammaritano, years before they reconnected and started dating. Where she spent her days at parks and beaches with her brother.

But on Feb. 14, 2018, it became the place where an unspeakable tragedy rocked a town that didn’t see it coming.

“You’d never expect this,” Abbey said. “Especially in a town like Parkland.”

Abbey was in the early stages of recovering from an ACL tear when it happened. It was two weeks after her injury when the alarm sounded at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Abbey walked gingerly out of her classroom, expecting a fire drill.

The shooting took place in Building 12, and Abbey was in class in Building 3. She managed to escape the school’s campus and rush to a friend’s house nearby.

Fourteen students and three staff members were killed, and 17 others were injured in the country’s most fatal high school shooting.

Sammaritano, who graduated a few years prior, remembers the chaotic aftermath.

“It was absolute insanity,” she said. “Your phone was blowing up, everybody was freaking out, our hometown was a wreck. But then I also felt this guilt, because I really wasn’t there. Abbey was. She lived through it.”

That’s something Abbey has a hard time grasping. Yes, she was there, and, yes, 17 people she went to school with died. Seventeen more were injured, including one of her teammates, but Abbey can’t quite tell the story without feeling that same guilt that Sammaritano does.

It’s been six years, but Abbey admits that she still hasn’t fully processed the event. She’s not sure she ever will. And the more she talks about it, the more that guilty feeling grows.

“I’m telling the same story, over and over again. It almost feels like I’m taking away from it. I don’t know,” Abbey says, before pausing to collect her thoughts. “It almost takes away, not the value, because it needs to be told, but I almost feel like a robot sometimes, saying it over and over.”

But she’d also feel guilty if she didn’t talk about it.

“There are kids from my school who aren’t able to tell their story,” she said. “Or kids who were in the classroom where it happened who are forever scarred. Like, I don’t have the worst story out there.”

She’s caught in an impossible place, with guilt on either side.

Sammaritano thinks Abbey downplaying her story is a coping mechanism. A way to grasp an ungraspable event. To put distance between Abbey and that day.

It’s also the way Abbey lives. Her glass is always half-full, never half-empty. And even when it’s hard to find a single drop of water, she pushes on.

COVID-19 and the loss of her father

Alex Hsu was a self-made man. He spent the first 18 years of his life in Hong Kong before coming to the United States, where he put himself through medical school to become an internist and eventually opened his own practice.

He valued hard work and good grades, but above all else, he valued family. And not just his wife and kids, but his community. They were family too. He made it a point to treat members of the Chinese community, continuing to use his native language every day at work. And if patients didn’t have money but needed care, he’d always treat them.

“He was just the most humble, sweetest person in the world,” Abbey said of her dad.

On weekends Alex liked to wind down by watching TV, and Abbey often joined him. He loved “Dumb and Dumber,” and even though Abbey didn’t think it was that funny, she laughed because he laughed. His joy was infectious. He also loved watching football, but never developed a particular affinity for a team. Instead, he always opted to cheer for the underdog.

And when it came time for Abbey to choose a college basketball program, that mindset played a part.

Ivy leagues were at the center of Abbey’s search, but at first, she wasn’t so sure about Columbia. As the recruiting process progressed, the typically self-effacing Abbey admits she got a little bit cocky.

“When I first started receiving offers, it did pump up my head a little bit,” Abbey said with a laugh. “I came to a practice at Columbia and I thought, ‘I could beat these guys.’ But I was just being immature. Now, being in their shoes, I know the college game is so different.”

Despite her initial feelings about the program, Abbey was won over by the Columbia coaching staff, especially Griffith. Like Abbey, she’s half Chinese and grew up in a household that prided itself on hard work.

Abbey also liked the idea of building a program, rather than joining one that was already established.

“I also rooted for the underdog,” she said. “So I thought it was kind of cool. My dad (mentioned that) they were at the bottom of the league, and it almost gave me more confidence. I’m like, ‘OK, I can come in and contribute right away.’”

As a freshman, Abbey started every game and averaged 14.3 points. Her numbers have gone up steadily every season, and now as a senior, she is averaging 21.3 points per game. That’s the 15th-best mark in the country. During the recruiting process, Griffith first noticed Abbey’s shooting ability — she owns the record for most 3-pointers made at Columbia (348 and counting) and the most made in a single season across the Ivy League (112) — but over the years, her game has become more complete. As a senior, she’s also averaging 7.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists and just over one steal per game, and in the offseason she competed with Team USA’s AmeriCup team.

But perhaps the most telling stat is Columbia’s success. In Griffith’s first three seasons at the helm, the Lions were 29-54. Since Abbey came to campus, Columbia is 74-27, with its first two NIT bids in history, including an appearance in last year’s NIT championship game.

“She’s like the spark that lit the fire here,” Griffith says of Hsu.

The Lions hope to earn a spot in the NCAA tournament this season after narrowly missing out last year and will likely have to win the Ivy League tournament to do so. The Lions are second in conference play and 16-5 overall this season.

But regardless of what happens in the postseason, Abbey will graduate after helping turn an underdog program into a winning one, leaving a small part of her father’s legacy at Columbia.

In March 2020, at the end of Abbey’s freshman season, she and the rest of the country’s athletes were sent home. Once COVID-19 made its way to the United States, everything happened quickly, Abbey said. One day she was home with her family, and the next, her dad was in the hospital.

Alex spent over three decades caring for his community, and as a catastrophic event swept over South Florida, he didn’t shy away from his work.

Then, on March 24 — two days after Abbey’s birthday — he was gone.

When Alex died, people he treated over the years flooded an online obituary with comments, and nearly four years later, Abbey still hears stories about his kindness.

“I get messages from people telling me how much of an impact he had on their lives,” she said. “People who I have no clue who they are. It just reflects the person he was.”

The family gathered at the Hsu home and attempted to pick up the pieces. Their grief manifested in the form of arguments. Bickering wasn’t uncommon in a house with seven children, but now, Alex wasn’t there to be the peacemaker. So Abbey, the youngest person in the room, stepped up.

“I had to remind myself to be level-headed,” she said. “That’s what he would do if he was here.”

And when Abbey looked around, she realized something.

“That was the first time that most of my family was together in the house since I was a kid,” Abbey said. “It was kind of like a bittersweet, full-circle moment.

“In our own way, even though there was a lot of fighting going on, it was good for us all to be together. It’s what he would have wanted.”

Finding life away from basketball

After the Parkland shooting, Abbey turned to basketball to help her cope. But when her father died, her favorite distraction wasn’t an option. The pandemic raged on, and the 2020-21 season was canceled.

So Abbey took the year off from school, and instead opted to work at the same sushi restaurant for which she delivered orders in high school. During that time, she also reconnected with Sammaritano, who had been three years ahead of her at Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

Early on in their relationship, the two decided to save up and go on a road trip. They traveled across the country, exploring nature and sleeping in the car — something Abbey had always wanted to do, but never had the time. Eventually, the trip led them to Washington.

The physical distance between the Pacific Northwest and Florida allowed for emotional distance from the tragedies that happened there. Abbey told Sammaritano more about her dad, and about her dreams for the future. About how she hopes to own a gym one day — maybe back home, or maybe in Texas, a place she feels inexplicably called to.

It was also the first time since she started playing that Abbey didn’t pick up a basketball for an extended period of time.

As a kid, she would do shooting workouts until her hands bled. And if a drill wasn’t executed to her satisfaction, Abbey would do it over and over again. Sometimes she even did extra conditioning after practice, just because she didn’t feel the training session was challenging enough.

“I’m sometimes a psychopath with a basketball in my hands,” Abbey said. “I feel like I have to be perfect.”

Abbey loves basketball so much that it can consume her. And when confronted with hardship, the court is often where she goes.

“Basketball is who I am,” she said, “for my whole life, since I can remember.”

But on the road trip, she had to find out who she was without it.

If you ask Sammaritano, or Coach Griffith, or her mom, it’s not really the game that defines her, it’s the person she is when she plays it. It’s her work ethic, instilled by her parents at a young age. Her care for her teammates. The empathy and sensitivity that allow her to have Jim Valvano-style “full days.”

It’s her ability to see herself as lucky, even after everything she’s been through. And the self-awareness to understand that she still has a long way to go.

“I still don't think I’ve fully grieved everything,” Abbey said. “I think it’s day to day. Like even with Parkland, I’m still working it out. And with my dad, I’m figuring out how to live life with it, but not let it physically anchor me down.”

An unlikely win on a difficult anniversary

On March 24, 2021 — the one year anniversary of Alex Hsu’s death — Abbey and Columbia played Boston College in the third round of the NIT tournament.

It was the program’s first NIT appearance in history, and it looked like the moment was about to end.

Throughout the season, with Abbey leading the way, 3-point shooting propelled Columbia’s offense. But through two quarters, it hadn’t made a single one, going 0-for-12 from beyond the arc. By the end of the game, Columbia was 0-for-20, and Abbey had missed eight attempts from long range.

“It was almost like the whole team was missing 3s in solidarity with Abbey,” Griffith said.

At halftime, the Lions trailed 33-18, a deficit that perfectly positioned them as the underdogs. And even without a single made 3-pointer, Columbia managed to come back and win, 54-51.

“It was like [Abbey’s dad] was there with us,” Griffith said. “And I think ever since that moment, she has really allowed herself to acknowledge the loss versus just play through it.”

As they fought back, Abbey grasped a sliver of normalcy. And with her dad's spirit propelling the underdogs to victory, she took a small step forward in her healing process.

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