On the softball field, St. Rose first baseman Catie Ziesmer appears to be a typical everyday starter.
She can hit the ball. She can crouch down and scoop up the infield dirt while fielding the ball. She can run the bases. She throws well. And she plays with enthusiasm and is committed to her teammates.
“Catie is very mature for her age,” said first-year coach Sean Bayha. “She’s very heady on the field. She’s knows in her mind exactly what has to be done on the field, and she’s really good with the rest of the girls on the team. She’s a vocal leader and the girls like her.”
But here’s what the average fan wouldn’t know – Ziesmer has a heart condition which, at least technically, limits her play to some degree and last season she returned to the field a year after major back surgery to correct a severe case of scoliosis.
“You wouldn’t know it by the way she plays,” said teammate and longtime friend Nicole Benanti. “She’s always putting her heart into everything she does. Catie plays hard, works hard, and we all love her.”
Growing up, Ziesmer played softball, soccer, basketball and swam competitively. But at age 3, she was diagnosed with Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder of the connective tissue in the body, which causes elongated, weakened joints as well as an enlargement of the heart’s aorta. As she got older and grew, the syndrome helped cause the development of scoliosis, an abnormal curvature of the spine.
By the time Ziesmer had reached her freshman year at St. Rose, the scoliosis was creating bigger problems for her. An 83-degree curve caused her spine to start pressing up against one of her lungs, and it was determined she needed surgery to repair the spine and alleviate the possibility for damage to any internal organs.
On Dec. 7, 2010, Ziesmer underwent surgery, which required eight titanium rods and 16 screws to straighten her spine. Her spine was fused from just below her shoulder blades down to about the waist.
“I missed two and a half months of school and couldn’t play softball my freshman year,” said Ziesmer, now a 16-year-old junior. “It was basic enough to have the surgery, but I wasn’t sure how my muscles would build back up or how flexible I’d be. When I was in eighth grade, I was pretty flexible and moved well. That changed a bit after the surgery.”
Having had to give up most other sports because of her heart condition, Ziesmer was intent on getting back to the softball field as soon as possible. She returned to the team last season as a sophomore.
“She was an awesome player before the surgery, but I think the surgery opened up a fire inside her,” said Benanti, who’s known Ziesmer since kindergarten at St. Rose Grammar School. “She didn’t want to give up softball and she wasn’t going to ever let her condition hold her back from playing. She was determined.”
Upon her return to the softball field, Ziesmer said her hitting was off, she couldn’t stretch well at first base, her body reactions were strained and some days it was simply too painful to play.
“I was never the most graceful runner or fielder, so those aspects of my game didn’t change much. My hitting ability was most affected by the surgery,” Ziesmer said. “But it was never a thought in my mind that something that bad would happen to prevent me from playing. I knew it would be difficult, but I was never using my surgery as a cop-out.”
Benanti said she believes the surgery and ongoing struggle of living with Marfan syndrome has made Ziesmer a better person.
“She’s learned to live within whatever limitations she has but still overcome most obstacles in her life,” she said. “I don’t think I could go through what she has had to go through.”