USA TODAY High School Sports and the Army National Guard have teamed up in search of high school athletes who embody the same values. We’re sharing stories of athletes whose personal courage has enabled them to overcome insurmountable odds — born leaders who go above and beyond in their communities, and whose loyalty has inspired others to make the most out of every opportunity.
Elena Proshavaeva spent the first two years of her life in an orphanage in Voronezh, Russia, located 350 miles south of Moscow. On July 3, 1997, everything changed for Proshavaeva — including her name.
Long before she transformed into a softball star at Northwood (Shreveport, La.), Elena became Kaitlyn Williams, after Julie Williams flew more than 5,700 miles from Louisiana to adopt her.
When the older Williams arrived at the orphanage, she recalled Kaitlyn was the only one with clothes on — a faded cotton purple dress and white shoes, the bottoms of which were made out of what looked like cardboard.
“When I first picked her up, she felt hollow,” Williams said. “She was so light, it felt like she didn’t have any bones.”
Williams weighed 22 pounds; her clothing size was that of a one-year old. Her hair had been kept short to minimize risk for lice. Williams also had scurvy, a disease that results from a lack of Vitamin C and can lead to anemia and ulcers in the gums and teeth.
"She did walk, but not very well,” Williams said. “Her toes were on top of each other."
The child didn’t talk. But two weeks after arriving in Louisiana, she spoke her first English word, bubble, which was repeated by her mother while the two were blowing bubbles.
Within a year, Williams’ feet grew five sizes, and she gained 15 pounds. Her hair became shiny. Her toes straightened out, too. And while she learned to walk better, she remained uncoordinated.
“She’d walk into walls,” Julie Williams said. “She wouldn’t watch her feet, and she would stumble all the time.”
In an attempt to improve her coordination, Williams signed up five-year-old Kaitlyn for a variety of sports, including gymnastics, swimming, basketball and tee-ball.
Kaitlyn said she quit tee-ball midseason out of boredom, but pursued basketball until she was nine. It was her basketball coach — who doubled as a softball coach — who encouraged her to hit the diamond. Williams eventually quit basketball in pursuit of excelling at the most difficult position on the softball field — catcher.
“You have to take charge of the field,” Williams said of her attraction to the role. “The catcher sees everything and leads the team.”
At age 11, she started traveling with her All Star team for tournaments, and that same year, the team won the Louisiana state championship.
Early success only encouraged Williams to stick with the sport. She was nicknamed “Bulldog” for her competitive and fearless nature.
Williams played varsity as a high school freshman. Northwood coach Greg Swearengin put her in center field, a role best suited for her quickness and good arm.
Williams’ flat feet — a result of childhood scurvy that requires Williams to wear inserts—didn’t seem to hinder her performance. “It almost looks like she’s running with a limp — sometimes it’s not smooth, but she’s still fast,” Swearengin said.
During her sophomore season, Williams returned to her favorite position, catcher. And a season later, Williams helped lead Northwood to the Class 4A state quarterfinal, ending the season with a .378 batting average.
Courtesy of Julie Williams
Now a senior, Williams, who maintains a 3.75 GPA, is hoping to end her high school career on a high note. Williams is signed to play at Bossier Parish, a community college in Bossier City, La. After two years, she hopes to transfer to a higher division and says LSU is her dream school.