November 27, 2022

Since her freshman year of high school, Stanford junior Cameron Brink has lost just 22 games.

Her 159-22 record in that time includes a national championship in her freshman season with the Cardinal.

She has already confirmed she will return for her senior season, during which she will be the centerpiece of the roster. This year, the 6-foot-4 forward is being lauded across watchlists as one of the top players in the country.

“There’s always pressure,” Brink said. “I’m good at putting more on myself. Even last year, I was so afraid to lose and I think that was the wrong kind of motivation. This year, I’m putting it into wanting to win and finding the right kind of pressure.”

Brink was one of the September recipients of the CALHope Courage Award, awarded by College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA) to California student-athletes who are overcoming the stress, anxiety, and mental trauma associated with personal hardships and adversity.

She has been open about her mental health struggles that were sparked at the start of the pandemic. The Cardinal spent nine weeks on the road during their national championship run due to COVID protocols that prevented contact sports within Santa Clara County.

“Everyone has their way of coping,” she said. “I’m really good about being vulnerable. Whenever I’m in a bad mood or not having a good day, people around me will know. Mental health should be seen as hygiene, like brushing your teeth every day, you should be checking in with yourself, so I haven’t been afraid to share that I’ve struggled mentally.”

During that 2020-21 season, Brink didn’t see her parents for stretches of months at a time for the first time in her life. Her mother, Michelle Bain-Brink, didn’t get to see games in person until the Pac-12 tournament.

Her one run-in with her daughter at the Final Four in San Antonio came by chance: she had been in the lobby to deliver books to be sent to her daughter, and they saw each other through a door.

“She happened to be going to the bus,” Bain-Brink said. “That was the closest we had been in months, and we both got a little teary.”

Brink said COVID gave her “time to sit with my thoughts, and that was really scary.”

Isolated in a way she had never been, like so many college athletes were, she felt like she couldn’t trust her mind. Her godsister, Sydel Curry-Lee (Stephen’s sister), has helped her open up.

Fred Luskin, the director of the Stanford Forgiveness Projects who Brink calls the “happiness professor,” speaks before every Tuesday practice about mental health. Brink credited him with some of her coping mechanisms. She also sees a sports psychologist at Stanford.

Attention has also followed Brink and her family. She has more than 28,000 Instagram followers and has started to get social media sponsors like Netflix and Urban Outfitters as she navigates the name, image and likeness (NIL) world.

“It can be surreal, for her and for us,” Bain-Brink said. “The other day at a bank a little girl asked, ‘Are you Cam Brink’s mom?’ It’s interesting having a personal identity and then being your kid’s parents to other people.”

Entering her third season, Brink is already a national champion, Naismith Defender of the Year finalist, two-time Pac-12 champion, and a preseason Pac-12 first team member. Last season, Brink shot 55% from the floor (22nd in the nation) and led the Cardinal in scoring (13.5), rebounding (8.1) and blocks (2.6).

“She’s going to be so hard to handle this year,” said teammate Haley Jones. “She’s improved so much more, and she had a great year last year already.”

Stanford has been a part of Brink longer than she’s been on the roster. She was recruited as an eighth-grader out of a camp where she scrimmaged against a then-college roster after moving up in age group each day. Then-associate head coach Amy Tucker recruited her shortly after.

“I watched her get a rebound and she started dribbling down the other end of the floor and finished on the other side with a Euro move,” said the former Cardinal assistant coach. “I turned to our current associate head coach Kate Paye and said, ‘We have got to offer her.’”

At the end of camp, Tucker offered Brink the scholarship. The then-13-year-old Brink thought it was an offer for the next camp, not to join the Cardinal.

The offer came two years after she had started playing basketball. Brink was reluctant to take on the sport both her parents played in college. While in Amsterdam, she finally ceded after Sonya Curry — Steph’s mom and a college roommate of Brink’s mom — convinced her to do half days at a boys basketball camp. By the end of the week, she was asking to participate in the full days.

“She’s very competitive,” Bain-Brink said. “That fall she went back to school and joined the basketball team. She was the youngest person on the team, and it was different in Europe, they had lower hoops and no backcourt defense. But she got a taste of success.”

In another universe, Brink could have been a dual-athlete at Nebraska, who offered her a volleyball scholarship. She led her high school to a state championship as a middle blocker, but basketball had bloomed into her passion.

Brink was ranked the No. 3 recruit in the nation after three seasons with Mountainside High School in Beaverton, Ore. She won the Gatorade Oregon Player of the Year twice and a McDonald’s All-American. She fielded offers from Oregon and UConn before deciding on Stanford.

“Cam really does it all,” said Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer. “She shoots the ball, she can run the floor. The only thing that really stopped her last year was foul trouble, and that’s something she’s gotten better at in practice.”

The goddaughter of Sonya and Dell Curry, Brink has been taking 3-pointer lessons from Steph as she looks to add to her perimeter game.

“She has refined her offensive game,” Tucker said. “She’s worked on extending her offensive game to the three, which is a big move for her future.”

Brink knows she represents some of the future hope for Stanford. Lexie and Lacie Hull are gone this season. Next season, Jones will be.

The added urgency to her development has aided her mindset as well.

“I’m learning what it means to be a leader,” Brink said. “It’s not just basketball, but school and everything else. I want to be a resource, for the freshmen, for anyone who needs it.”

Marisa Ingemi is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: marisa.ingemi@sfchronicle.com

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