Standing Strong

Standing Strong

by Christy Cabrera Chirinos

CORAL GABLES, Fla. – There were times Kyla Oldacre felt herself fighting the darkness, wondering if she’d ever feel like herself again on the basketball court.

A former McDonald’s All-American who arrived at Miami as one of the top 25 recruits in the country, she knew her teammates and coaches both had high expectations for her.

But after enduring unimaginable pain, navigating major surgery to remove a number of benign tumors from her abdomen and needing a procedure on her knee last season, Oldacre was scared.

And sometimes, the sophomore concedes, that fear got the best of her.

“My journey has been like a steep roller coaster,” said Oldacre of her two years at Miami. “Sometimes, I feel stable. Other times … I came in, I was dominating, but I didn’t know I was playing with tumors the size of a newborn baby. Then after knowing that, I had to get my meniscus scoped out. It was tough. I was questioning my existence on the team. Was I still needed? Would I still be part of the program? Or would I fall too far behind? Then I got back, and [we went to] the Elite Eight.”

During that scary time last season, those same coaches and teammates who wanted to see Oldacre shine were plenty worried for her, too.

Former Hurricanes guard Karla Erjavec, who is now playing professionally in Europe, was a constant presence in Oldacre’s life during that stretch, visiting with her often and calling to check on her when they were apart.

Miami’s coaches kept watch too, whether it meant visits to the hospital to spend time with Oldacre as she waited for news from doctors or whether it meant providing a listening ear once she got back on the floor and needed to ease some of the doubts in her head.

“It’s a heavy weight that she was carrying around, you know? And it’s hard to keep something like that to yourself and not reach out for more support because you’re choosing to be private about it,” Hurricanes head coach Katie Meier said. “I always tell my players, ‘You know, if you carry around a glass of water all day and you never put it down, pretty soon, your arm’s going to shake. Your hand’s going to cramp. Just come in my office and put it down. You know you have to pick it back up. You’ve still got to deal with it. But offload it for a second and just try to share with other people and ask for help. And I’m glad she did that.”

Recently, Oldacre – a forward from Mason, Ohio – shared her story with members of the University community as part of a Black Athlete Mental Health Panel during the athletic department’s celebration of Black History Month.

Oldacre was joined on the panel by Miami Dolphins tight end Julian Hill, Miami sports psychology/mental health fellow Khara Vassell, who played soccer at North Carolina, and fellow student-athlete Michael Redding III, a wide receiver on the Hurricanes football team.

Together, the four athletes discussed the need for multicultural mental health resources, spoke about their individual experiences and detailed how competing – particularly in the social media age – can impact athletes’ mental health.

For Oldacre, it was a chance to not only express herself, but to inspire others and remind them that even in some of their toughest moments, they aren’t alone.

“It’s important to have these conversations,” she said. “I think it will help athletes that come after me, even athletes that are here now. Let them know, reassure them it’s okay. Put your ego down because mental health is no joke. There are a lot of athletes that I know put their jerseys down because they decided it was all too much.”

This season, Oldacre has been a consistent defensive presence for the Hurricanes.

She has started 21 of Miami’s 27 games and is among the team’s top two rebounders, averaging 4.8 per game. She has totaled 25 blocks, second on the team behind Latasha Lattimore. And she is one of the go-to voices in the locker room, a voice Meier knows can deliver a message when needed.

“She is a strong woman. She does not compromise. She knows who she is, she stands strong, and she demands proper behavior from her teammates,” Meier said. “She’s just really, really impressive. It’s great to see her emerge.”

But both Meier and Oldacre know it was a journey for Oldacre to find herself in that position after all she endured during the first months of her freshman year.

When Oldacre was finally cleared to return to action after her surgery and knee procedure, the 6-foot-6 forward wondered whether she should redshirt. She still felt occasional discomfort and worried a setback might send her back to the hospital.

Doctors reassured that wouldn’t happen and in her first game back – a late-December showdown against rival Florida State – she scored the first points of her collegiate career.

Oldacre knew then she was on her way to feeling more like herself, mentally and physically.

“It was very special. … That was a huge milestone,” Oldacre said. “The old me would have wanted to quit. I would have turned in my jersey and just stayed on an academic scholarship. But I made adjustments to [be able to] play. I know I looked a little bit wider, but that was because I was wearing padding to protect and support myself if I got hit, things like that. … But I’m glad I didn’t redshirt. I’m glad I didn’t quit. If I did, I wouldn’t be where I am now.”

Now, Oldacre and the Hurricanes are setting their sights on another March run. She remains actively involved with Miami’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, is a regular participant in the athletic department’s community outreach efforts and is pursuing a degree in interactive media.

And she is finding her voice not only as a leader on the court, but in the community beyond it.

“She probably doesn’t feel like her growth has been fast, but those of us who support her and encourage her feel like it’s been incredibly fast and in all the right ways,” said Shirelle Jackson, Miami’s Executive Associate Athletic Director of Student-Athlete Development. “Not only does she show up in the classroom and on the court, she shows up for our campus community. She is a team leader and a campus leader. … She continues to evolve and elevate. I can’t wait to see what the next few years hold for her. I think she’s going to continue to be a bigger and better influence, for all of us.”

Added Meier, “She’s such an honorable person. I’m just really proud. I couldn’t be more proud of her, not just with her battle, but how and why she chose to open up about it.”