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An inspirational athlete: Kylie Schalz overcomes paralysis to get back on the softball field

Kylie Schalz. with her parents. Bill Robin. is honored during Senior Day ceremonies before final game seasagainst Nebraska-OmahMay 4. |

Kylie Schalz. with her parents. Bill and Robin. is honored during Senior Day ceremonies before the final game of the season against Nebraska-Omaha on May 4. | Oakland University photo by Jose Juarez

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It may not look like much in the box score — “Kylie Schalz, pr” is the entry, followed by a row of zeroes. The fact is, it was huge.

On a sunny Saturday in early May in Rochester, Mich., Oakland University’s softball team played Nebraska-Omaha and dropped a 4-0 decision to end its season 7-23.

Just another game?

Ummm, no.

Oakland catcher Erika Polidori opened the bottom of the first inning with a single. She was then replaced — for one pitch — by a pinch runner, fifth-year senior Kylie Schalz.

“The other team knew what was going on. It was pretty emotional,” said Bill Schalz, recalling his daughter’s final appearance as a college athlete.

Schalz and his wife Robin, who had taken part in pregame Senior Day ceremonies with their daughter, were caught unaware. They watched as Kylie slowly but purposely walked onto the field, got a hug from her teammate and took her place as the runner at first base.

After a pitch taken by the next batter, they traded places again, with Polidori re-entering the game.

“There probably weren’t many dry eyes in the house,” Bill Schalz said. “It was very cool.”

Step by step. Two back surgeries in the rear window, Kylie Schalz was on the field again.

Officials at the Summit League school may have had some reservations, but first-year coach Connie Miner was determined to make sure the inspirational athlete she hadn’t recruited — or ever seen play — was rewarded.

“She’s a very special young lady and it was emotional to get her in there, but she deserved to have that moment,” Miner said.

Looking back

Rewind to June 8, 2011. That’s when the challenges began for Kylie Schalz.

The 2008 Beacon News Softball Player of the Year had completed a third productive but painful season at Oakland because of a back condition, scoliosis — lateral curvature of the spine.

That summer day she chose to have corrective surgery to have metal rods attached to several vertebra to help straighten the spine. It would allow her to return to the softball field the following spring for her senior season.

Something went wrong, though, leading to swelling in her spinal cord near the disc above the one the surgeon was working on. The procedure had to be stopped and Kylie awoke with no feeling from the middle of her chest down.

After months of hard work at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC), she was walking again with the aid of crutches and returned to school later that fall.

Kylie redshirted her senior season, continuing to work toward her degree in mechanical engineering and on her rehab while doing what she could to help her coaches and team.

The improvement continued to the point she was able to start softball activities.

“I was running last summer (2012) and hitting the ball hard to the fence (in batting practice),” she said.

The dream of returning to the diamond wouldn’t go away.

“She was getting to first base in 5.9 to 6.1 seconds,” Bill Schalz said. “She figured she could make it to first if she could hit it to the outfield and was hoping she might progress to the point where she could be used as a pinch hitter and if she got on they could pinch run for her.”

Another setback

Feeling good, Kylie returned home the first Sunday in November, 2012. Joined by her parents, they took part in Sky Rise Chicago — Tower Up, climbing to Skydeck Chicago in the Willis Tower in a fundraiser to benefit the RIC, which had been so instrumental in her recovery from paralysis.

Make it to the top, she did, climbing 2,109 steps in 1 hour, 13 minutes, 20 seconds to scale the 1,353 feet up, nearly to the summit of the former Sears Tower.

She returned to school, only to wake up the next day with “a sharp pain in my back.” Her coaches got her to a hospital but the doctors there weren’t much help. She was losing feeling again in her feet and legs and it was spreading.

Kylie was sent to Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, only to have a neurosurgeon and neurologist disagree on treatment.

“I went from being able to run to being in excruciating pain,” Kylie said. “I was constantly on pain killers and it wasn’t even affecting it at all.”

That’s when Robin went to work, consulting doctors at the Mayo Clinic and Ohio State University Medical School and one of the nation’s top specialists in Denver. She also consulted with The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, which is aided by the Buoniconti Fund, started by former Miami Dolphins linebacker Nick Buoniconti after his son was paralyzed from a spinal cord injury he suffered playing college football.

“My mom was unbelievable,” Kylie said. “From that first Sunday in November to March 21, I had lost all feeling again and was slowly but surely losing my mobility, but she wouldn’t give up.”

“The doctors in Denver and Miami agreed the problem was caused by the spinal cord attaching itself to her vertebra, something they call ‘tethering,’ ” Bill said. “A cyst had also developed in her spinal cord.”

Complicated insurance issues that led to delays finally were cleared and Kylie had the surgery in March in Miami by Miami Project chairman and neurosurgeon Dr. Barth Green.

“This guy is like the Yoda of spinal cord surgery,” Bill said.

It went well. The cord was freed from Kylie’s vertebra and the cyst “imploded upon itself, which was a good thing or there could have been further complications,” Bill said.

Kylie soon was walking again, leading her coach to hatch the pinch-runner plan.

“I’ve been so impressed with her approach and positive attitude to life and everything she does,” Miner said. “She doesn’t realize how many people she’s inspired. She’s inspired me. I only wish I had gotten the chance to see her play. She’s a very special young lady.”

In the aftermath, did Kylie have regrets or worry that she had pushed too hard to come back from the paralysis?

“Not at all. My activity was not the reason this ‘tethering’ thing happened,” she said. “In a way, it was kind of helpful it put me in the hospital and happened the way it did. It’s been an adventure.”

The next chapter

Fast forward to June 2013.

Kylie Schalz, cane in hand, is mobile, walking down Madison Avenue in New York City to work. She has an internship this summer at the internationally known Thornton Tomasetti engineering design firm.

“I don’t need (the cane) to walk, but I don’t have very good balance yet and if someone were to hit me (on the crowded street) it could be a problem,” she said, then chuckles.

“Plus, it’s also a very good weapon.”

Robert DeScenza is president of the firm, which has overseen big arena construction projects such as the new Yankee Stadium, United Center in Chicago, American Airlines Center in Miami, the Soldier Field renovation as well as projects at six of the 10 tallest buildings in the world, including Willis Tower in Chicago.

His daughter, Mary, swam for Bill Schalz’s Rosary and Academy Bullet Swim Club teams before moving on to the University of Georgia and Team USA, setting a world record in the butterfly in 2009. A younger daughter, Patty, and Kylie were good friends.

“My brother took Mary to some dances,” Kylie recalls. “And Mr. DeScenza was instrumental in me going into engineering. I remember visiting his office with Patty when I was in high school and the blueprints for the new Yankee Stadium were on his desk. It hit me pretty hard when he explained what they do.”

Kylie plans to continue pursuit of her masters, but isn’t sure if her focus will be in civil or structural engineering. During her rehabilitation, she’s also discovered flaws in some of the equipment she used that might be improved.

One thing is certain, the tattoo she had inscribed on her right forearm after her recovery from the initial paralysis should continue to inspire her.

It says, and as she has proven, “Impossible is nothing.”

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