Like so many universities and colleges across the country, the University of Alabama has an area called The Quad.
Tuscaloosa’s version of the commonly-named common area is 22 acres, home to the university's iconic Denny Chimes bell tower, and features an aesthetically-pleasing, yet not-at-all symmetrical pattern of lawns and paths that reminds one of a basket woven by an impatient or uninterested child.
Somewhere on that 22 acres, on an average day, you might find Emily Oberst studying.
As the Brookfield native delves into the second half of her freshman year at Alabama, she has found that it’s more common for her studying or walks around campus to be interrupted by curious passersby who think they recognize her.
They’re right. She is indeed that girl whose picture they’ve seen in university articles recently. She is indeed one of the newest members of Team USA.
It was only five years ago that Emily’s world changed forever.
In November of 2011, she began to feel pain in her left leg. Initially, she and her parents, Melissa and Steve, thought the pain was shin splints.
“We shrugged it off,” Melissa Oberst said. “But it persisted and started sleepless nights. She needed ibuprofen just to make it through the day. So we went to get an X-ray.”
They found not shin splints, but a tumor.
As an eighth-grader, Emily Oberst was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer, in her tibia.
“I cried for the whole first night,” Emily said.
It would have been a lot for any eighth-grader — any person of any age — to deal with, but for Emily, it was one particular aspect of her diagnosis that struck home.
“I loved sports my whole life. My life revolved basically just around basketball. I was traveling every weekend, playing five games every weekend and missing out on my social life. I was in love with basketball,” Emily said. “After I was diagnosed with cancer, the doctors told me that I could never play again. It crushed me.”
For much of the next two years, Emily and her family persevered through a long and difficult recovery process that featured chemotherapy, surgeries and countless lengthy hospital stays.
“We knew it was going to be a difficult path with difficult treatments and sleepless nights,” Steve Oberst said. “But Emily is who she is. She’s a competitor. She’s a gamer. She wants to compete, she wants to win, and I think that attitude helped her get through it.”
The attitude paid off. By 2013, Emily was cancer-free and ready to resume life. But there was one vacancy that needed to be filled.
A new love
There’s a certain misconception about wheelchair basketball that anyone involved in it understands. For some, it’s frustrating. For others, it’s understandable. For Emily, it was initially hard to overcome.
“I thought wheelchair basketball was slow and non-competitive,” Emily said.
When Bob Anger, then the head coach of the Milwaukee Heat wheelchair basketball team, first heard Emily’s story, it was from an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel detailing her battle with cancer and her subsequent return to athletics.
“She was just recovering from her cancer and was playing golf for Brookfield Central. I saw that article and I was eventually able to make contact with her family,” Anger said.
Emily had no interest at first.
But Anger persisted and eventually was able to convince Emily and her parents to visit one of the Heat’s practices to see wheelchair basketball for herself.
“Once she saw practice, she was in. Before they even left that practice, they were committed to wanting to be a part of it,” Anger said. “That’s one of the challenges for wheelchair basketball really. If you have not been exposed to it, you don’t really know what it really is. That’s why I was persistent. I really believed that if I could get her to see it, she would fall in love with it.”
That love translated into a pristine collection of accolades. Emily was named the 2014 and 2015 National Female MVP.
Anger effused about Emily’s work ethic, also noting that he is not surprised to see how successful she has become at the sport she once refused to take part in.
“I’m not at all surprised. You never know, when you first meet an athlete, what their level of desire is going to be. You can see someone’s level of talent, but to get to her level, she’s had to be committed and put in a great deal of hard work,” Anger said. “It didn’t surprise me to see her move on to the collegiate level and I’m thrilled to now see her wearing USA colors.”
Emily herself credits that level of desire and her work ethic to having to deal with something as serious as cancer at such a young age.
"Going through that helped me a lot. I had to mature really fast and it helped me learn where my priorities are,” Emily said. “Now I’m able to play the sport that I loved but in a new way. For sure, going through that made me realize the importance of working hard to get what I want.”
During her time with the Milwaukee Heat, which later rebranded to the Milwaukee Wheelchair Bucks, Emily also took part in her first U.S. Paralympic Development Training Camp. It was a sign of things to come.
Warm weather has always been attractive to Emily. In June 2014, her Make-A-Wish campaign culminated at Asiana Restaurant in Pewaukee with the foundation’s volunteers celebrating her family’s send-off for a dream vacation to Tahiti.
Another dream came true in November 2015, almost exactly four years after her initial diagnosis took basketball away from her, when Emily accepted a scholarship to play wheelchair basketball at Alabama. She had always wanted to attend school someplace warm.
“I never thought that wheelchair basketball would do this for me,” Emily said. “I didn’t even know that they had wheelchair basketball in college.”
University of Alabama wheelchair basketball head coach Adam Lancia, a former Paralympian himself, has been impressed with Emily since first meeting her last July.
“The vibe that she gives off is really positive. She’s a leader on the floor when she needs to be. She’s got a nice, even temperament,” Lancia said. “She’s a good teammate and a good friend.”
Now, the gift that keeps on giving has granted Emily one of the highest honors that athletes in any sport can receive.
“I never could have even imagined I would ever end up on an Olympic or Paralympic team. I think everyone who has played a sport has dreamed of that, but it’s such a slight chance. That barely ever happens to anyone,” Emily said.
Emily first applied to try out for Team USA after seeing an article on Facebook from the National Wheelchair Basketball Association. She ended up being only one of a few dozen women to be invited to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado for a three-day selection camp.
Last week, the NWBA announced its 2017 U.S. Women’s Wheelchair Basketball Team with Emily included as one of 16 athletes who will move the team toward its eventual goal of qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.
In the time since that announcement, the University of Alabama has gotten the word out about both Emily and teammate Brittany Gustafson making the roster.
“People have seen those articles that the university has done and seen my picture so I sometimes have people come up to me and ask, ‘Are you that girl that’s on Team USA?’” Emily said.
But while strangers might look at her differently now, Emily values the fact that she has a strong circle of friends around her who have nothing to do with basketball.
“My roommates aren’t on my basketball team and we hang out all the time. They’re like my sisters. I love my teammates and they’re like a family for me too. I think I have a great balance of all of that,” Emily said. “I’ve definitely been recognized a little bit more, but I don’t think anyone who knows me really looks at me differently.”
The months to come will feature plenty of trips back to the Olympic Training Center and an eventual trimming of Team USA’s roster down to 12.
For Steve, the destination for his daughter — whether it be Colorado Springs, Tokyo or elsewhere — isn’t as important as the journey.
“When we heard she made the team, we shed a tear, not just for this accomplishment, but for the fact that we’re living life with Emily still after what she’s gone through,” Steve said. “For this to be the next part of her journey in life is just the continuation of the good fortune that we’ve had. Going back to those dark days sitting in hospitals in Milwaukee and Philadelphia and seeing where she’s at today, it’s amazing. Life takes you on different paths and you just don’t know where you’re going to end up.”
Despite all that Emily has gone through in the last five years, both the negatives and the positives, Lancia says that you would never know by looking at her.
“She doesn’t identify outwardly as a cancer survivor. She also doesn’t expect people to know her as a member of (Team USA),” Lancia said. “She’s a freshman student at a university. She smiles a lot. She’s happy.”
When 2020 rolls around, Emily might find that her path has her in Colorado Springs again. Perhaps it will be leading all the way across the Pacific Ocean to Tokyo.
Regardless of how far she may travel, the odds are that at some point you’ll be able to find her just trying to be a normal senior sitting, studying and smiling on the scattered lawns of The Quad — a master of unpredictable paths amidst a web of them.