Kat Yelle: The Road Back To The Game

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Pushing their bodies to the limits – both physical and mental – and uncontrollable obstacles come between athletes and their passions. Oftentimes, medical intervention is called upon to repair a broken body and even a broken spirit.

The toll of surgery and rehab can be enough to drive a young man or woman away from competing ever again. This is not the case for Ohio point guard Kat Yelle.

One athlete who underwent three surgeries over the past two years who has yet to satisfy her goals.

Before donning the green and white of Ohio, Yelle was a standout guard at Geneva High School, just outside of basketball-frenzied Chicago, Ill. She finished her Geneva career as the school’s all-time leading scorer, compiling a long list of accolades along the way.

In addition to her excellence on the hardwood, Yelle showcased her athleticism on the school’s cross-country and track and field teams. A natural competitor, Yelle had all of the motivation that she needed to excel at the next level.

What Yelle didn’t forecast was appearing in only 14 games in her first two collegiate seasons.

On Dec. 18, 2011, the Bobcats lost to the Oklahoma Sooners 89-57 in a tournament in Las Vegas. Luck was not on Ohio’s side that fateful night. Yelle, who started all 11 games and averaged 3.9 points, 3.5 boards and 2.2 steals, tore the anterior-cruciate ligament and meniscus in her right knee, ending her season immediately.

One surgery and a year of grueling rehab later, the highly competitive sophomore returned to action, ready to put the injury behind her. Almost as soon as the second chapter of her Ohio story began, another road block. Yelle re-tore her meniscus early in the season and was forced to sit out until around Christmas.

Another surgery, but still Yelle was determined to fight back.

Ohio took a road trip to New York City around the holidays where Yelle saw limited action in two games. After a few weeks of rest, Yelle arrived back in Athens, ready to take on the Mid-American Conference for the first time.

She didn’t get the chance.

During a practice, prior to Ohio’s season conference opener against Akron, Yelle tore her right meniscus once again, putting an official end to her sophomore campaign.

Once coaches realized that the season was lost, Yelle received a medical redshirt and an extra year of eligibility. Had Yelle played in a conference game, she would have forfeited her chance of receiving the redshirt.

Another surgery, another setback that forced Yelle to think, “Where do I go from here?”

Yelle admitted that she questioned her love of the sport during her rehabilitation prior to the 2013-14 season, but not to the point where giving up was an option.

“As a player, having to experience this, it has really made my passion for the game grow more even more than it was before,” Yelle said.

Her passion grew through the rehab process, but Yelle discovered the difficulties of subduing that passion for the sake of her own health. Her trainers and strength coach stressed the importance of resting her knee as much as possible to preserve her meniscus. Activities, such as long-distance running, had to be monitored carefully to prevent any setbacks.

“In order to get to this level, you have to push yourself your whole life,” Yelle said. “To finally be told to step back, it was hard.”

In addition to listening to her medical staff, Yelle quickly learned the value of listening to her knee and adjusting her routine accordingly.

“There were times when [my knee] would be sore and I wanted to push through it,” Yelle said. “I learned by the third surgery that, whenever it’s hurting, I can’t push past it and I have to let it rest.”

Recovering from a series of injuries, such as Yelle did, required a tremendous amount of mental endurance, according to Yelle. Returning to the proper mindset after the third surgery was atop her priority list – a mindset of confidence and a belief that she would play in the fall accompanied Yelle through her journey to recovery.

She knew that coming back physically would present enough of a challenge. Keeping her injuries in the back of her mind would only slow her down.

As Yelle continued to rebuild her body and spirit, her family was there every step of the way. Her parents John and DeLaine Yelle, regular attendees of Kat’s games, experienced firsthand the impact of Yelle’s injuries.

“[My parents] were there on the good days, they were there on the bad days,” Yelle said. “I talked to them every day when I was injured and they probably understood the most out of anyone what it was like for me.”

Through frustration and a rigorous path back to health, Yelle said that her father John always insisted that he was a special athlete with a special mindset. Swollen knees and pain after practice were becoming a regular part of Yelle’s life that she would have to embrace, whether she liked it or not.

“He told me, ‘Kat, that’s the new normal and you have to get your mind wrapped around that. It’s never going to feel like it was. Once you accept that, then you’ll be able to play on it and just ignore it,’” Yelle said.

Her family’s love helped her get back to the game, but it was what her family loved that inspired Yelle that much more. Despite living near the territory of the Chicago Bears, Yelle grew up an avid fan of the Minnesota Vikings.

Just four days before Yelle tore her ACL and meniscus against Oklahoma in 2011, Vikings all-pro running back Adrian Peterson tore his ACL and medial collateral ligament. It was his left knee, but Yelle felt inspired by Peterson’s comeback.

The following season, Peterson rushed for 2,097 yards and 12 touchdowns, coming only 9 yards short of breaking Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record. Only 12 months prior to his final game of the 2012 season, Peterson was being carted off of the field with questions of his future hanging in the balance much like the tenacious guard from Illinois.

Yelle watched Peterson rip through NFL defenses and felt inspired to return to the court herself. Her recovery proved to take longer than Peterson’s, but she was active for Ohio’s first game against Xavier this season.

Months prior to Ohio’s 94-88 over the Musketeers, new head coach Bob Boldon took over a 6-23 (1-15) program that was in need of a culture change. When Boldon first held organized practices, Yelle was just returning to normal training.

“I didn’t know how [Boldon] was going to take my injuries because I hadn’t proven anything at the collegiate level,” Yelle said. “I was lucky enough that he gave me a chance. I had to prove myself.”

With a new coach comes a new routine. Boldon brought his motion offense with him from Youngstown State and installed the fast-paced, movement-based offense to his new squad. In addition, man-to-man defense with quick rotations and genuine hustle was emphasized early and often.

Yelle quickly adjusted to Boldon’s system and said it fit her aggressive style of play. She also admitted that Ohio’s success aided her recovery and made the process enjoyable.

Through 16 games, Yelle has started 15 and said that she has felt no intense pain in her knee this season. She leads the team in field goal percentage (44.6 percent), assists (39), and also has 12 steals.

Not only does she lead in statistical categories, Yelle and guard Mariah Byard are the most tenured players on Ohio’s roster. Yelle accepted the role of being a leader early in the season.

Her leadership comes not only through her play on the court, but her resiliency off of it. Having gone through so many injuries, Yelle supports her teammates when injury strikes, trying to pick them up in any way.

“It can be easy to fall into the mindset of, ‘I don’t know if I’ll make it back,’” Yelle said. “I’d like to think that I’m setting an example for future players that go through this program that if they do have to go through what I had to go through, then they can hopefully not lose hope by seeing that I came back through it all.”

Hope is the idea that motivates people to attempt the radical, predict the impossible and think the unfathomable. For Yelle, hope took her took this point on her road back to basketball.

Determination is what will guide her the rest of the way.