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The Emotions of Sports: From a low to a high

Illness halted Jessica Shults, but her return brings happiness

Posted: August 6, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: August 6, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Hart High graduate Jessica Shults wears her No. 18 on her cheek, as did her University of Oklahoma teammates when they played in the NCAA Tournament without her. Hart High graduate Jessica Shults wears her No. 18 on her cheek, as did her University of Oklahoma teammates when they played in the NCAA Tournament without her.
Hart High graduate Jessica Shults wears her No. 18 on her cheek, as did her University of Oklahoma teammates when they played in the NCAA Tournament without her.

Life’s high points are sweet, and they are often sweetened by trials and tribulations.

They can make a person appreciate the joys more, and usually, he or she is better for the experience.

But they must be endured first.

That’s the road on which Hart High graduate Jessica Shults has been down and back.

Three months ago, Shults was laying in a bed at Norman Regional Hospital in Norman, Okla., severely weakened and malnourished.

She had lost 25 pounds and was being fed through IVs.

The then-Univeristy of Oklahoma sophomore was arguably at the lowest point in her life.

That was then.

USA Softball is now.

On July 21, Shults knelt behind home plate as a member of the U.S. National Team at the World Cup of Softball at Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City.

The catcher had come a long way in her newfound battle with a debilitating disease.

Shults was on fire.

Her numbers were among the best in the Big 12 Conference, and she was only two home runs away from breaking the school’s single-season record — in March.

Grand slams and game-winning homers seemingly came at will for the sophomore, who was receiving high praise from her head coach, Patty Gasso.

“Up to that point, she was definitely one of the best out there,” Gasso says.

But Shults was in agony.

Something wasn’t right, and she didn’t know why.

The last thing she wanted to was be a distraction or losepace on the season, so she ignored the growing pain in her abdomen.

“I was kind of just trying to block (the emotions) out a bit and focus on softball,” she says. “Still, in the back of my mind, it was scaring me a little bit. I knew something was wrong, but no one could figure out what was going on.”

Unfortunately, she couldn’t outrun the pain forever.

Shults wasn’t eating.

She wasn’t sleeping.

What she was doing was weakening.

“It was more helpless,” Gasso says. “It wasn’t so much frustration, but concern — not knowing what was going or why it was going on. It hurt our team definitely, but I think what we were more bothered by was that Jessica is such a vibrant young woman. When she is not herself, it is very evident. It changed the dimension of our team. Her personality, she was a little more quiet, not as involved, not as lively and not as energetic. You could feel that. We not only missed her play, but her leadership, personality and the fun she brings to the team.”

In early May, Shults was diagnosed with pan ulcerative colitis, which is a chronic disease of the colon marked by inflammation and ulceration of the innermost lining, according to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America’s official website.

Her blistering numbers were dipping, and she was shut down just before the Sooners opened regional play against Iona on May 20 in the NCAA Division I Tournament.

She was admitted to Norman Regional the same day, and she stayed there until June 1 on a liquid-only diet.
Prior to the diagnosis, Shults says rumors began to swirl about her weight loss.

Talk of anorexia and even pregnancy found its way back to her, but she remained unfazed.

“The rumors are going to happen,” she laughed, noting her love for eating. “I didn’t really mind. I think it was funny.”
Shults was down to her final dose of an undisclosed medication, and doctors were hoping it would finally take hold.

Thankfully, it did.

“It really hit us hard,” says her father, Bob Shults. “At that time, I didn’t know if she’d ever play again to tell you the truth. Softball is so far down the totem pole from your children’s health, character and the type of person she is. That’s what’s important. Softball, you know, it’s nice, but when you see your child in the hospital that sick, you really don’t care about sports that much.”

Just before the team left for its Super Regional matchup with Arizona, the players and coaches stopped by Jessica’s hospital room.

The short visit lifted her spirit, she says. She felt like she was with them in Tucson, Ariz.

“It was really emotional. I didn’t want them to see me like that,” she recalls.

Shults finally returned to the lineup for the College World Series, and got two at-bats against Missouri on June 4.

Unfortunately, the Sooners lost 4-1 and were eliminated from the tourney.

Despite missing virtually the entire postseason, she still finished with a .992 fielding percentage, a .338 batting average, 58 RBIs and 19 home runs, one shy of the school record. She was named a second-team All-American and All-Big 12 honoree, and was an All-Regional selection.

She ended the season a shade of her former self, but things were about to take a marked upturn.

Back in April, Shults accepted an invitation to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista to try out for the national team.

The tryout ran from June 12-17, and when it finally came around, she says she kept her expectations low and was set on just enjoying the experience.

Instead, she was named the team’s alternate.

“Jessica had done such a great job during her junior program years being invited to tryouts and what she had done at Oklahoma that it warranted a serious look at her,” says USA Softball head coach Ken Eriksen. “We are not very deep in the catcher position, and anytime you have a talent like she is, you have to give her a second look.”

Shults first donned her national uniform at the Canadian Open FastPitch International Championship from July 9-17 in Surrey, B.C., Canada, after an injury to teammate Brittany Schutte opened up a roster spot. She hit her first home run during the tournament.

Another injury allowed her to play at the World Cup.

Her parents made sure to attend.

“Before, I probably wouldn’t have even been there,” Bob says. “I took for granted that she would be playing her whole life. Even now, I stopped coaching travel ball. I’m not going to miss out on my kids.”

Jessica played the sixth and seventh innings of a 7-2 win over Czech Republic and started against Canada and played four innings. She finished 0-for-1 at the plate, and USA lost 4-3.

“She fit right in,” Eriksen says. “She called some great games.”

The U.S. went on to beat Japan 6-4 to win the World Cup of Softball title for the fifth time.

“It’s a real honor to represent my country,” she says.

The valley was very low for Shults this year, but she’s come out of it better than ever.

Her mind-set has changed, and she views the game with a greater sense of urgency and vigor.

For the first time in her life, the sport she loved was gone.

But it’s back now.

She’s up early each day training, working in the weight room and hitting in the batting cages.

Her diet is regimented, and she is putting weight back on.

She’s also out raising awareness about pan ulcerative colitis and trying to inspire those who are debilitated by it.

“I have it for a reason,” she says. “Now, I feel like I should educate others who feel like they can’t play the sport they love or feel like they can’t do everything with their life they want to. I feel like I need to be a voice to people who think they can’t do it.”

Shults is driven.

She’s rediscovered her joy.

Each twist and turn reinforced it, and she’s not about to let it go.

“I forgot how much fun it is to play this game,” she says. “This has made me realize that I can’t take anything for granted, and that I have to go out there and play the best I can.”

The best may be yet to come.


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