INDIANAPOLIS---The NCAA has named three student-athletes, who overcame life-altering experiences, recipients of its 2005 Inspiration Award.
Kaia Jergenson of Lipscomb University; Michelle Thomas of the University of Oklahoma; and Marcharia Yuot of Widener University, will be presented the award at the NCAA Honors Dinner Sunday, January 9, as part of the NCAA Convention in Dallas.
The Inspiration Award, created by the NCAA Honors Committee in 2001, may be presented to a coach or administrator currently associated with intercollegiate athletics, or to a current or former varsity letter-winner at an NCAA institution who, when confronted with a life-altering situation, used perseverance, dedication and determination to overcome the event and now serves as a role model to give hope and inspiration to others in similar situations.
Kaia Jergenson, Lipscomb University
On January 4, 2004, Jergenson, a six-foot-two freshman basketball player, who averaged 12 points and six rebounds per game through the first half of the season, had to be rushed to a hospital emergency room. She was unconscious and suffering from meningococcal septicemia (a bacterial infection in her bloodstream). Doctors gave her little hope of survival.
Several weeks later, Jergenson awoke briefly to tell her parents that her hands and feet were in pain. Surgeons amputated both of her legs six inches below the knees, as well as some of her fingers on her right hand that were potentially causing the infection. After the surgery, she endured several muscle and skin grafts to begin the process of reconstructing her body. In March, while still in the hospital rehabilitating, Jergenson experienced another trauma when her feeding tube became infected and her weight faded to 100 pounds. Once again, Jergenson refused to stop fighting and recovered, overcoming another life-threatening obstacle.
Despite her tremendous loss, Jergenson returned to the classroom and to the Lady Bison basketball team where she has served as team manager for the past four years. She is in her senior year majoring in biology, chemistry and Spanish with a 3.55 G.P.A. After graduating in May 2005, Jergenson would like to attend medical school.
A native of Gallatin, Tennessee, Jergenson's positive attitude and perseverance are evident as she continues to overcome obstacles in her recovery. She was the recipient of the Athena Award of Tennessee and the Kaia Jergenson Courage Award, which the Nashville Sports Council established in her honor.
Michelle Thomas, University of Oklahoma
Thomas, a track and cross country student-athlete, is on course to graduate in 2005 despite the many setbacks and barriers she has endured.
Last fall, Thomas and her twin sister took on the responsibility of raising their two nieces after the young girls' mother was sent to prison. At the same time, Thomas' mother was battling cancer and could not provide assistance to her or her grandchildren. Thomas woke up at 5 a.m., drove her nieces to day care, and went to 6:30 a.m. track practice. She kept this schedule throughout her first semester while maintaining a 3.56 G.P.A.
Thomas' second semester brought more hardship and heartache. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, she was informed that one of her other sisters, Kia Tasby, had been murdered. With limited funds available, Thomas and her twin utilized money saved for school to bury their sibling.
Thomas eventually returned to school with little money, mounting bills to pay and her two small nieces in need of care. Nevertheless, hope was on the way one day when Thomas was called to her athletic director's office for a meeting. It was then that Thomas learned she had been awarded an academic scholarship to pay for her education. Thomas, who had maintained a high grade point average, was thrilled.
The McAlester, Oklahoma, native has been quite successful in school. She was named a Bill Gates Scholar, Big XII all-Academic first team, and selected to the Big XII Commissioner's Honor Roll. Thomas is majoring in microbiology and chemistry and is interested in a career in medical research.
Marcharia Yuot, Widener University
In the late 1980s, about 26,000 boys in Africa traveled nearly 1,000 miles by foot to get to Ethiopia and eventually Kenya. According to the American Red Cross, thousands died during the journey -- they drowned, were accosted by wild animals, shot by military forces or suffered from hunger, dehydration or fatigue. However, some managed to overcome the ordeal and tell their story of endurance. They were nicknamed the "Lost Boys of the Sudan," after the orphans in the Peter Pan story.
Yuot, a cross country and track athlete, is one of those Lost Boys. He is a refugee from a two decade-long religious civil war in Africa. Yuot says he was about nine years old when he fled his village. He spent several years at the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. He received much of his schooling there, learning Arabic, Swahili and English. He also played soccer.
Beginning in 1999, the U.S. government began transferring about 3,600 Lost Boys to various places in America. Yuot applied for relocation and was one of the fortunate ones allowed to come to the United States. "All I knew was that our plane was headed to something called P-A," Yuot said. "I wasn't sure where it was." He soon learned it was an abbreviation for the home state of Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania.
Yuot began running cross country his freshman year. Now a junior, Yuot became the third cross country all-American in Widener history, and he already has collected a Middle Atlantic Conference cross country individual championship. In addition to finishing fifth in the Mid-Atlantic regional, he captured second place at the NCAA Division III Cross Country Championships in 2003, giving him the highest finish ever by a Widener runner.
Yuot, who is majoring in psychology and social work, wants to continue running. Eventually, he would like to enter a career field where he can work with people.