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Posted: Thursday February 10, 2011 5:59PM ; Updated: Thursday February 10, 2011 5:59PM

Death of Princeton softball player shocks then inspires team

Story Highlights

Princeton softball player Khristin Kyllo, 18, died Jan. 13, 2011 of natural causes

She began experiencing unexplained seizures as a high school senior

Her death shocked her teammates, but taught them the real meaning of a team

By Lizzie Pierce, Special to SI.com

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Khristin Kyllo
Khristin Kyllo played both infield and outfield for the Princeton softball team.
Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Khristin Kyllo wore two watches alongside her rainbow of Silly Bandz and bracelets. One for fashion. One for function. Even then, she was never on time. She was either 10 minutes late or 30 minutes early. No matter. She just pushed that much harder to catch up or practiced that much longer. It was never about the required hours of practice for her. It was about the moment. The moment she could play the sport she loved most.

Khristin would've been that kid on the tee-ball team. The one who made every play from third to first base while the rest picked grass in the outfield. She just had too much energy to be tethered to one position. Sometimes, even shortstop wasn't enough for her. She always wanted to do more.

With this unparalleled passion, Khristin thumbed her nose at limitations. She pushed herself beyond the unexpected seizures and concussions that occurred in class in her senior year of high school. Beyond the three-week stay in the hospital after another unexplainable seizure. Beyond the loss of much of her short-term memory. Beyond doctor after doctor who left so many questions unanswered. Beyond the mass of schoolwork that piled up, as graduation day crept closer and closer. Beyond another seizure after another seizure. Beyond every unexplainable complication. All so she could finally reach her dream destination: the Class of 1895 Softball Field at Princeton University.

Even as her teammates, we never knew how debilitating and dangerous Khristin's illness was. This amplified the shock of that painful Thursday morning last month. She never even hinted at how difficult it was. She would have a seizure in the morning and be in the weight room that afternoon. Once, she seized in the middle of her philosophy lecture. Within a day, she was plowing through batting practice and back to studying philosophical theory. During our fall season she even had a mini-seizure on a van ride home from an away game. No one knew until she mentioned it in the locker room.

We've learned more about her medical condition from reading old articles online. It's become almost compulsive to type "Khristin Kyllo" into Google and see what new stories or difficulties the internet reveals. It's what we do to try and understand what happened. To wrap our minds around the incomprehensible.

We use the Internet to feel close to her. We scroll through Facebook, staring at old team pictures. We read her softball profile page on goprincetontigers.com. We stare at her name on our team roster. We even change our Facebook statuses to try to express what we don't even know how to feel. It seems so trifling ... but it's the only thing we can think to do.

Without her, the hours are indistinguishable. The days blur. We need her watches to tell us what time it is. To tell us when we need to move and continue our day -- though we rarely have the strength to leave each other. We should be studying for finals, but everything seems so ... trivial.

Instead of studying, we sit around and tell stories about Khristin. It's one of the times we can truly laugh. Even through everything that happened. Even though she is gone, Khristin is still the one making us laugh.

Khristin dreamed about the day she could wear her Princeton uniform. On a Thursday just before our first games of the 2010 fall season, that day finally came. Coach Trina Salcido announced that our uniforms were hanging in our lockers. We needed to make sure that they fit us before the weekend game. Khristin asked if she could take her uniform to her room. Everyone was immediately confused. Why would she take it to her room three days before we actually played? Especially when we would be getting dressed in the locker room. She wanted to sleep in her uniform, of course. Bond with it for 72 hours. She even asked if she could wash it in her own building instead of using the athletic laundry services. Understanding and embracing her unwavering excitement, Coach Salcido simply replied, "Just don't lose it." And Khristin looked at her like she was crazy. She would never ever lose it. She wanted to wear it forever.

And she will wear it forever. On Jan. 22, 2011, 18-year-old Khristin Kyllo was buried in her Princeton softball uniform. No. 2., size small. Cleats and all. It still seems so very unreal. It's as if tomorrow morning we'll see her holiday- and pastel-patterned, unmatched socks once again as she warms up for weight lifting. But we won't. The most we can do is remind each other of the socks and the quirky girl who wore them.

We are a team. We are a we. But sometimes, it's hard not to feel like a we minus one. It's like there is this perpetual void. A space at the dinner table missing a tiny 5-foot-2 blonde girl. A squeaky voice that never knew the meaning of "shy." A uniform hanging up in the locker room missing a smooth-handed shortstop and an unyielding leadoff hitter. These are the not-so-gentle reminders of what could've been. What wasn't.

But here's the thing about a team -- and we are only now realizing this as we calm down and what we thought was impossible hurts a little less -- it's more than physical. It's more than what happens on the field or at practice. It's this idea that constantly travels with you. It's there in the back of your mind when you need motivation. It's the dreading of practice all day after three hours of sleep the night before. But knowing your teammates have suffered the same thing. It's the unadulterated excitement for the first game of the season. The first time you put on that uniform, tie that orange ribbon in your hair, and step on the dirt. And you know your teammates are just as thrilled. It's the passing away of one teammate, and knowing she is still pushing everyone forward. Still bringing the team together. Still leading the team through every hour of practice and every inning.

It's a collective consciousness. And Khristin will always be part of it. The biggest part of it now. She will be the patches on our uniform. The stickers on our helmets. The sign on our outfield fence. The extra uniform we hang in our dugout. The Deuce watches we wear on our wrists. She will be the real angel in the outfield. Guiding us. Making it acceptable to fail because at least we still had the opportunity to do so. But simultaneously pushing us one step further, toward the win that we thought would be undoable without her.

Khristin Kyllo was vivacious. She was quirky. She said too much. She was small. She was quick. She was driven. She was lovable. And she was loved. She lived life for 18 years. And now we are going to live the next 60 or so for her. Because that is what a team does. Lives and acts in the memory of the people they love. And we love Khristin Kyllo. All five feet and two inches. And we will live in that moment for her all season long.

Lizzie Pierce, a sophomore, is an outfielder on the Princeton softball team. Her teammate, freshman Khristin Kyllo, died on January 13, 2011.

 
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