It’s always been a part of Emilee Buckles life, and the Puyallup High senior never knew life to be any different.
At 9 months old, Buckles was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a life-threatening genetic disorder that affects mostly the lungs but also the digestive system. The disorder affects the cells that produce sweat, mucus and digestive juices. Long-term issues include difficulty breathing and coughing up mucus as a result of frequent lung infections.
Buckles’ condition often leaves her worn out and clinging to each breath, even after minimal activities.
“I was born with it because it was genetic … it’s been rough sometimes, but there’s other times it’s been a little easier,” Buckles said. “It’s definitely a trip to go through.”
When Buckles was 9, her father, Rick, helped introduce her to the one sport that has become her life: softball.
“I’ve done (softball) since I was 9 years old — it’s become my life,” she said.
Children who are diagnosed with cystic fibrosis don’t tend to have productive athletic careers. Not having the ability to build up stamina like teammates due to issues outside of their control makes sports tough.
Yet, Buckles never allowed her condition — one that creates as much restraints as cystic fibrosis does — to define her.
“I try to have fun and enjoy this … I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” Buckles affirmed during her youth team’s Freedom Fastpitch weekend tournament at South King County Fields in Auburn.
But a condition like cystic fibrosis doesn’t always allow athletes to get what they want. Even though Buckles is a great pitcher for both Freedom and Puyallup High, the stamina factor always comes into play.
“Sometimes I’ll be watching her out on the mound and I’ll see her tug at her shirt,” Rick said. “Her coaches don’t always catch it, but I know that’s a habit of her’s when she’s having trouble breathing.”
And conditions on extremely hot or humid days can make it worse for her.
“I think the heat played a major part in her short outing today,” Rick said on Saturday.
“She’s a terrific pitcher, always giving us good innings when she’s out there,” Freedom coach Marc Sellers said. “After the third inning, she started to tire and press out there. I’m aware of her condition, and we want to put her health first.”
Voice in the dugout
Buckles found herself when she stepped onto the diamond. It became a life for her — a new family for her to take in. It’s the connections many athletes strive for when they join a team.
But not many of those connections are re-created ones.
“When I started playing softball at 9, I fell in love with it,” Buckles said. “Softball became a way for me and my dad to connect with each other ... It made our relationship stronger.”
But softball has done wonders for Buckles, allowing her true persona to take root — especially when she can change the complexion of a game without being between the lines. It’s even weirder when that person is coming from the bench.
“She’s a real leader to her teammates,” Sellers said. “Whenever the energy is low and everyone is getting down, Emilee is often the first one picking the girls back up. They feed off her enthusiasm.”
“She’s always been a natural leader,” said Tina, her stepmother. “She wants the best in others.”
Back in May during Puyallup’s playoff run in districts, Buckles wasn’t always out there playing with her Viking teammates. It’s hard to be competitive and sit on the bench. Yet there was Buckles being the most recognizable voice heard from the dugout. Often the chants started with her, building into a roar from the Puyallup bench.
“I know I have to be there for my family — both my family, my club team family and my (Viking) family,” Buckles said. “I know it’s my job to cheer them on to be the best out there.”
Sometimes it’s the traits we can’t define that make a person great. Buckles could have all the reasons to be upset with the cards dealt to her, the ones that limit her time on the field.
Passion for a sport can drive anyone crazy once it’s taken away. But not for Buckles. She sees the whole picture of the game, and so do the people who come into her life.
“I was told that the main reason she was chosen for this team was for her leadership,” Rick said with pride. “The coaches told me they wanted her on this team because of that … she affects people in such a positive way.”