April 21, 2015
By Brad Muller | More Features
Kaleb Zuidema knows what it means to persevere. Having rehabilitated from surgeries for a torn anterior cruciate ligament and a torn rotator cuff, in addition to "Tommy John" surgery on his elbow, the red-shirt sophomore javelin thrower has responded by earning All-Southeastern Conference and All-American honors with the hope of becoming a national champion.
"Overcoming adversity is definitely something I had to face during my first couple of years here," Zuidema said. "Everything happens for a reason. If in the future I can be an inspiration to an athlete that is going through a tough time, it would be great to talk to them."
The Midland Park, New Jersey, native was a multi-sport athlete in high school, and had some of the best collegiate track & field programs courting him as a teenager. He owned state records in the javelin, was a United States Champion with a win at the New Balance Outdoor Nationals, and went undefeated in his event during his junior season, including a win in the high school division at the prestigious Penn Relays. A torn ACL during a soccer match in the fall of his senior year left him wondering if he would lose his opportunity at the next level.
"I had wanted to wait until after soccer season to pursue my recruiting visits," Zuidema said. "Once the ACL happened, I was depressed. I basically shut off my phone. I didn't communicate with any schools. I didn't want to tell them what happened because I was afraid they wouldn't want me anymore. A lot of the schools knew about my surgery, and it's not like they didn't want me. I just didn't want to come to a campus limping around on crutches. So I took myself out of the picture for a while."
Zuidema's rehabilitation progressed faster than expected.
"I had surgery in November, but I was able to come back and throw five months later to win the state championship again," Zuidema said. "I had to contact the schools again and show them where I was. South Carolina was one of those schools that still believed in me, so it was good to talk to them and to have the coaching staff tell me they still wanted me to come."
While other schools also showed an interest, Zuidema had known other track and field athletes who went to South Carolina, and he knew it was the best fit.
"I knew that the SEC had the best competition," Zuidema said. "The amount of Olympians that come out of the SEC is unbelievable. I really enjoyed the campus and seeing the Horseshoe and the Dodie Anderson (Academic Enrichment Center) building, along with all of the facilities here and the coaching staff. It felt like family."
In the time since his knee injury, Zuidema's throwing technique changed to where he was using more of his upper body and less of his lower body. This led to problems during his freshman year with the Gamecocks, eventually being told he would have season-ending surgery on his shoulder.
"Coming into my freshman year, I started feeling a little pain in my shoulder," Zuidema said. "My rotator cuff had a lot of wear and tear."
Just to have a spot among the top 24 throwers in the nation after having to sit on the couch the last two years not being able to practice was incredible. It was a good first year, but I'm definitely building off of it for this season and the seasons ahead.
He was at peace with the surgery in November and saw his red-shirt year as an opportunity to get comfortable with training and college life far from home. His goal was to prepare himself for the Junior USA Trials to make the U-19 national team the following summer. Being a state champion from one of the smallest towns in New Jersey, Zuidema was anxious to prove himself.
"I was in the training room for eight months straight, rehabbing and training," Zuidema said. "No complaints. Whatever I had to do to get ready. I wanted to show South Carolina what I had. I didn't want them to regret recruiting me. Mentally it was a little bit tough. I always wanted to be part of the team and contribute."
Zuidema returned home the next summer and was training for the Junior USA meet when bad luck came calling again. He felt a pop in his elbow after his first throw during a preliminary meet in New York City.
"I told myself that it didn't happen," Zuidema said. "I thought it's just a bruise or something. I had so much adrenaline in me that it didn't feel as bad as it probably was. I took my second and third throws, and they were very weak performances. I didn't want to back out, so I took all my throws and afterwards there was just a throbbing pain in my elbow."
He tried to be optimistic. Zuidema decided to take some time off from throwing for the rest of the summer and did not attend the Junior USA event. He met with athletic trainers and doctors upon his return to South Carolina and spent three months trying to make his elbow stronger through rehabilitation.
"After all that, I went to pick up the javelin and I couldn't throw it," Zuidema said. "I was scheduled for surgery the next day."
Ironically, it was the third consecutive year he would have surgery in November. The reconstructive surgery on his ulnar collateral ligament, commonly known as Tommy John surgery, would cause him to miss his second year of competing for the Gamecocks.
"Not being able to compete for my team again, that was the worst feeling," Zuidema said. "I felt embarrassed to walk around campus. I didn't think I looked like an athlete anymore because I hadn't really been able to lift weights for two years. I'm not going to lie and say that there weren't times when I thought about giving up and just going home. I felt embarrassed to be around my team and not being able to compete at all. It was tough physically and mentally."
His father, David, encouraged him to stick with it, so he did. He never missed a session in the training room.
"Our athletic trainer, Scott Gardner, really helped me," Zuidema said. "I lived in the training room. The weight room coaches really helped out too, along with my teammates. They really helped keep my spirits up and made me feel like I was still a part of the team. It was tough going to the training room and not going to practice every day."
Zuidema couldn't wait to finally suit up for the Gamecocks in the spring of 2014, and he didn't disappoint. He was the 2014 SEC Outdoor Javelin Bronze Medalist, and earned Second Team All-SEC and Honorable Mention All-American honors. He has also been on the SEC Academic Honor Roll every year. His journey came full circle as he won the collegiate division at the Penn Relays, where he had previously shone in high school, recording a heave of 228'6", good enough for the third best in school history. He also earned his first bid to the NCAA Outdoor Championships.
"It was nice to feel 100% and to just throw with my teammates," Zuidema said. "After my first couple of meets, I started to build my confidence back up. It felt good to be contributing to the team. After the Penn Relays, I knew there were bigger goals I had to set. I knew that making it to the NCAAs was a goal I could attain."
Making the trip to Eugene, Oregon, for the NCAA Championships was a dream come true and he hopes to take it a step further.
"Just to have a spot among the top 24 throwers in the nation after having to sit on the couch the last two years not being able to practice was incredible," Zuidema said. "It was a good first year, but I'm definitely building off of it for this season and the seasons ahead. Placing at SECs and being on the podium at nationals would be pretty sweet this year."
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