Rock Chalk Weekly: Greater Expectations

Written by Maddie Stein, Kansas Athletic Communications Student Assistant

With almost any experience in life, there are expectations on how that experience should play out, but for Alicia and Austin Pille the expectations placed upon them were merely a place to start.
Nearly a year and a half ago while looking forward to one of her most notable birthdays, Alicia Pille never knew it would lead to an experience that would drastically change her life forever. Because of the hectic lifestyle of a student-athlete, it wasn’t unusual for Pille to accumulate several missed calls and text messages, especially on that particular day – her 21st birthday. She originally assumed that the long list of missed calls and messages were just from friends and family wishing her a happy birthday. It was later in the day when she received a phone call from her best friend, Mariana, that Pille discovered her assumptions were wrong. She answered the phone expecting happy birthday wishes, but instead the conversation started by being asked if she was sitting down. At that exact moment, Pille remembers being in the softball locker room and hearing the devastating words that her brother Austin “was in a tragic car accident and that it was very bad.”
From that moment on, Pille was aware that there was going to be a long and difficult journey ahead. After the phone call from her best friend, the news was too heavy on her heart and mind to even think about going to class. Pille went to Kansas softball head coach Megan Smith’s office to tell her what happened. Crying hysterically and also still in the dark about many of the details, she tried to communicate to her “mom away from home” about the situation. Smith gave Pille strength and guidance while trying to sort through her emotions, just as her mother, Angela, would.
It wasn’t until the next day when Pille received a phone call from her brother-in-law, Matthew, that she truly felt how much of a family the Jayhawk softball program was for her. Although her parents encouraged her to stay in Lawrence and focus on softball and school rather than worrying about everything going on at home, her brother-in-law explained that Austin would be having surgery and there was a chance he might not walk again. After hanging up the phone, Pille dropped to her knees while tears just kept falling. Following that moment, sophomore Taylor Dodson approached and asked if she wanted to pray. She then walked over, knelt down and held hands with teammates Harli Ridling and Maddie Stein while Dodson started praying. By the completion of the prayer, Pille realized that all of her teammates in the Jayhawk locker room had joined her.
“It was one of the most emotional and intense moments I had ever experienced,” Pille said in reference to the outpouring of support from her teammates. “At that moment, it didn’t matter if someone was religious or not, everyone joined together to give me what I needed. At that point, the love for my teammates grew so much stronger and true.”
Through the NCAA there is a student-athlete assistance fund that can be used to help with travel in times of emergencies. Pille utilized this fund in order to fly to home to be there for her brother’s surgery and the beginning part of his recovery. After her arrival in Texas, the Pille family was told that Austin’s injury was to the C6 and C7 in the cervical part of the spine, which are six vertebrae from the top. In spinal cord injuries, the lower the injury to the spinal cord, the better the chance that the individual will regain full control of their limbs. So facing those odds, the doctors’ communication with Austin and his family didn’t give them much hope and the expectations were bleak.
After Austin’s surgery, Pille knew it was her turn to be in the stands cheering for her brother, as he did at every softball game for her. Being a night owl, Pille used her habits to the advantage of her family. After long and grueling days spent at the hospital with the rest of the family, the senior pitcher took the overnight shift to offer some much-needed rest for her parents. During sleepovers with Austin in the ICU the Pille siblings had special and emotional conversations that not everyone else caught glimpses of during the day. 
Right out of the gate with his recovery, Austin showed the family work ethic that is instilled in a Pille. He changed his diet and has lost approximately 40 pounds to date. Austin continued to pursue his education after the accident, has graduated high school and is now enrolled in college taking online classes.
“He is so positive. It’s crazy how much he does,” said Pille. “He wants to work out all the time and get stronger and is trying to lose weight to make it easier on transfers; because the lighter he is, the more stuff he’ll be able to do himself.”
With independency being the ultimate goal, Pille is constantly thinking of ways to help her little brother get there. Currently interning at OrthoKansas under an occupational therapist, the start of Pille’s professional career seems like it couldn’t come at a better time. She credits occupational therapists as a part of what helps her brother become more independent and she loves the fact that she can use the things she learns to try and experiment, ultimately helping Austin. The weight room has proven to be the best platform of learning when it comes to translating her own regimen into exercises that Austin can use from his chair to increase his overall strength. From the outside looking in, it would be easy to assume that everything was smooth sailing. Unfortunately, doctors still did not give the Pilles much optimism and the expectations were still low.
“That is not something my family accepts,” Pille said.
It isn’t something that Austin accepts either. On March 11, Austin was in a rehabilitation session and the therapist noticed a movement in his foot. This kind of progress wasn’t expected at this point in Austin’s recovery, so the therapist flipped Austin on his stomach and isolated his left leg to see if he could bend his foot. Moments later, not only did Austin move his foot once, but twice. That milestone was recorded by Austin’s mom and sent to Pille, who consequently shared with the KU softball team as part of a group message.
Up to this point, Austin has been breaking barriers that many people had already predetermined for him. As for his sister, Pille has been breaking and chasing down records.
Heading into the last home series of Pille’s senior season, KU softball’s ace has accumulated 638 strikeouts in her career, which is sixth-most in Kansas history. She is also just the sixth player in school history to reach the 500-strikeout mark. Pille’s accomplishments on the softball diamond are inspiring Austin as well. 
“I definitely look up to Alicia,” said Austin in reference to what his sister means to him. “She works incredibly hard (in the circle) and in school. I always look to her for school help and she always motivates me to do better. She is my role model.”
Not only is Pille a role model to Austin, but also to her teammates on the Jayhawk softball team. As a constant inspiration to her teammates, the Jayhawks, a year later, banded together to celebrate Pille’s 22nd birthday – a day she was dreading.
“I woke up that morning dreading this day because doctors say a year along is a time marker to gauge how much progress a spinal cord injury will make,” Pille stated in reference to the one-year anniversary of Austin’s injury. “I wasn’t really thinking about my birthday at all. I was actually panicking because I was running behind and had heard we had a team meeting.”
When walking into the room to join the team meeting, teammates, balloons, a fruit basket and banners were waiting to surprise the senior captain. Tears of joy fell down Pille’s face because she knew that her second family was trying to turn a day she feared into something special – to blow away her expectations.
During Pille’s collegiate softball career and Austin’s paralyzing injury, the siblings have made it a norm to defy the expectations that were laid in front of them.
“I think (Pille) and her fight, her work ethic, and her mentality in the circle, and just being a quality person who wanted to turn this program around is a huge reason why we have exceeded everyone else’s thoughts about what we can do here,” said Smith. “She walked in the door and we became a different program. It’s not just because of her talent but also because she is a great person. That is what we are all about, and she leads the way with that. To do what she’s done, not only takes talent, but takes being a special person.” 
Pille will leave the University of Kansas softball team as the most decorated pitcher during the Smith era, while also stamping her name throughout the record books. Meanwhile Austin is relentlessly working toward the freedoms and abilities that most people take for granted. Expectations will continue to be placed upon these two siblings as they embark through their respective life journeys. Luckily, expectations are simply starting blocks that Alicia and Austin Pille have exceeded past.

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