FORT MYERS, Fla. – There are certain events in everyone’s life which leave an indelible mark. Jenna Pealor provided just such a memory for Lipscomb softball coach Kristin Ryman.
It was one Ryman and Pealor would rather forget, but it shaped their years together.
“We had a conditioning workout one morning in McQuiddy Gym,” Ryman said. “It was a tough workout and one of our first for the entire team. At the end the girls all sat down in a big circle and started stretching.
“You could tell by Jenna’s body language that she wasn’t feeling right. She just kind of laid herself down and starting seizing. When she came to, she was in a lot of pain and a little disoriented, but she knew where she was.
Pealor had one seizure before going to Lipscomb, but neither she nor her parents thought anything was wrong, much less for it to become a life-altering event.
“We knew she had experienced it once,” Ryman said. “We had never seen it before. Her parents had told us what to expect, but when you see it for the first time it is scary. And from there it just went downhill.”
Pealor spent her freshman year going to appointments with various doctors and dealing with how her body was being altered by what was finally determined to be postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS).
“She spent so much time in the training room and in private examination rooms her freshman year,” Ryman said. “It was just awful. You have someone with so much talent to bring to the table, but at the end of the day you care more about her well-being as a person. It was a helpless feeling.”
Expected to be a solid player for Lipscomb with the ability to hit often and with power, Pealor would return the next year after redshirting. It would be more of the same as she sat on the sidelines dealing with her health issues.
“We knew when we recruited her, she could be a power hitter who would have impacted our lineup early in her career,” Ryman said. “We knew what she brought to the table as a catcher and a third baseman. She was going to compete and contribute in a variety of ways for us.”
An almost lost career
Pealor first started playing softball as a four-year-old. Her life had revolved around softball. During all the almost innumerable medical tests she wondered how what she was going through was going to affect her ability to play.
She didn’t like what she heard at first.
“I didn’t even think I would be back on the field playing again,” Pealor said. “I think a lot of that was based on what was told to me by my doctors. They didn’t foresee me being healthy enough to be back on the field ever again.
“It was really crushing and heartbreaking to have that pressed upon me. You work so hard to get to the place where you are a Division I athlete. It was very disheartening. I knew very quickly I wasn’t going to play my freshman year.”
She was given two different explanations for her health issues. One was a short-term problem. The other, polymyositis, an inflammatory problem, might last indefinitely. Both problems worked together for a time to make things even more difficult for Pealor.
“I had a lot going on with my heart and passing out,” Pealor said. “They thought that would be short term but didn’t know if it was going to be four months or five years.
“Polymyositis is basically your muscles breaking down and not being able to rebuild themselves. The way they described it to me was every time something happened it was like my body had been running marathon after marathon every day. With what my body had been through they didn’t think I would be able to withstand being back on a softball field.”
A season of joy
For the previous two seasons she had a handful of plate appearances. That is why this season has been so special for Pealor. She has played in every game and has demonstrated the hitting skills Ryman saw in her as a high school recruit in Newnan, Georgia.
Heading into the ASUN Tournament at the FGCU Softball Complex Pealor is hitting .256 with 11 doubles, one triple, six home runs and 30 runs batted in. She has started all 52 games which is something that would have been considered a miracle only a year before.
But it isn’t about the stats for Pealor. It is the joy of being on the field again and finally fulfilling what everyone always knew she could do.
“Jenna loves to play,” Ryman said. “She views it as a game. She has it in perspective. She understands her value as a human being is not tied up in how good a day she had on the softball field or what her stats are.
“That doesn’t mean she doesn’t have high standards. She just knows her worth lies elsewhere.”
Summers of change
Doctors finally developed a treatment regimen for Pealor prior to the start of her junior year. The treatment as she explains it was “six weeks of low-dose chemotherapy and steroids to basically kill off the bad things in my body and build up the new changes”. She threw herself into summer workouts with a vengeance in preparation for her final seasons.
“I had always been an optimistic person,” Pealor said. “My parents were optimistic. They told me, ‘we believe in you’. We want you to go after it.
“But they didn’t want me to risk my health. We had to be smart. I started working and just doing what they told me to do. I worked very hard to be able to do what I wanted to do.’
Pealor remembers all her visits with doctors, but one has special meaning.
“I will never forget when I went back to my doctor at the beginning of my junior year,” Pealor said. “He told me he had been practicing for 56 years but had never seen something like me. He had never put someone in this state of remission.
“I had no trace of the condition in my body. It was one of the most exciting and enjoyable times to know there was nothing still going on.”
But it was not an overnight process to return to full-time playing status.
“Last year it was still a struggle,” Pealor said. “Physically I had not been able to perform the same. This summer I worked very hard to be at a place where I could play regularly.”
Ryman wasn’t surprised to see how much progress Pealor had made heading into the fall season.
“She is just a warrior,” Ryman said. “When she came in this past fall, I knew she was going to play for us. She is too good of a hitter and she has such a strong arm. She brings so much to the table.”
Pealor’s father had sent Ryman a text filled with excitement over the summer workout.
“He said you are not going to believe where she is right now,” Ryman said. “He reached out to me to say how proud he was of her.
“She is maybe in better shape now than she was when she came in her freshman year. She has been able to do more of the lifting and running. Those were keys for her.”
Pealor admits there were some dark times as she sat on the sidelines working to recover her health. It was becoming increasingly hard for her to generate positive thoughts.
“There were some times my freshman year when I felt like well, this is it,” Pealor said. “I remember being in the hospital and my family being there. We usually were always cutting up but was a solemn-like sadness that hung over the room.
“It wasn’t like I was dying. But it was very much about there is something different going on. I t was hard for them to watch what was happening to me. It was hard for me to watch my body change so much physically, mentally and emotionally. I was experiencing things I never thought I would experience or would want to experience.”
Pealor felt a need her freshman year to chronicle what she had been going through.
“I am a really big words person,” Pealor said. “I write a lot. I started writing a blog.
“In my cubby right now I have the statement, “Remember where you started and keep fighting for where you want to be’.”
She has adopted the statement as her motto.
“As long as I remember where I started every moment on the field is full of joy and appreciation for being able to put on my cleats and uniform and be able to play,” Pealor said. “I get to be out here and do something my doctors, coaches and family never thought I would be able to do.”
Got to have faith
We are told that enduring challenges in life can bring us closer to God. Such has been the case for Pealor who developed a deeper understanding of what she believed.
“To be in a uniform and to be on the field every game this year has more than anything really shown me God is good,” Pealor said. “That is something my parents have taught me from day one.
“But this is a testament of how far I have come. But it is not what I have done but what the Lord has worked in my life. He has written a better story than I could myself.”
Pealor grew up in a Christian home, but like most she adopted her parents’ beliefs as a child and not really knowing why.
‘I grew up in a really loving Christian family,” Pealor said. “I have had faith since I was young, but I believed what my parents believed. I didn’t know I had to figure it out for myself.
“Coming to college, and especially being at Lipscomb, helped me to figure out my faith. There have been times when all I had to rely on was the Lord. Doctors were giving me a bad prognosis. My faith was my only hope and the only thing I had to hold on to.
“Reading the Bible and having a really strong faith and walk with the Lord has helped me through so much. It was not the way I envisioned it going, but it pulled me closer to the Lord through the trials I have been through.”
Ryman has seen Pealor grow in her faith as well.
“She is a big believer that God has her here for a reason,” Ryman said. “She was meant to be here and experience all of these things for a reason.”
The perfect place
Pealor returned to Lipscomb after her trial filled freshman year. It is hard to say who was more excited about the prospect of her trying to make a comeback.
“Most schools would not have kept me around after my freshman year,” Pealor said. “The coaches here encouraged me and loved me through the hardest seasons of my life.
“They could have put someone else in my spot. It would have been hard for me, but I would have respected the decision. They didn’t give up on me. They were always checking up on me. I am grateful for the way they kept me around.”
Ryman wasn’t sure what the softball future for Pealor would be after her freshman season.
“I was surprised she made the decision to come back after her freshman year,” Ryman said. “She loves this place. She wanted to be here. Her teachers had worked with her so well.
“She is the perfect fit for Lipscomb in general. It was hard for her parents to send her back.”
There was constant worry for her parents. There were a lot of moments with Pealor feeling lost.
“Her Dad was so grateful that we gave her the opportunity to stay here,” Ryman said. “I am more grateful that she took it.
“There was something about her. She couldn’t walk away, and we didn’t want her to. We believed in her.”
Ryman gets visibly emotional as she reflects on all aspects of Pealor’s time at Lipscomb. And, without a doubt, it was an emotional time for all involved in Pealor’s healing process.
“She is not Jenna a softball player,” Ryman said tearily. “She is Jenna a child of God.”