Kiri Jiaying Evans’ right foot is 3 1/2 sizes smaller than her left, and the leg below the knee has withered to about half the size of the other.
But the Belleville West junior’s aggressive play on the softball field gives no hint of the partially corrected clubfoot concealed beneath layers of athletic tape and a black brace that laces up past her ankle.
She has come a long way on those uneven feet.
Kiri was left in a swaddle on the doorsteps of a police station in China’s Guangdong Province and spent her first 3 1/2 years living in a Shenzhen City orphanage. She was taught to speak the native language there and to walk on a clubfoot that was bent sideways from the ankle.
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Chuck and Marti Evans, of Belleville, adopted Kiri in 2002 and raised her with a new older sister and brother. She has withstood the pain of corrective surgeries and the hurtful words of middle school classmates who bullied her for her Asian looks and a limp that’s still obvious, but only when she’s not running.
The dusty softball diamonds of the metro-east are where the 5-foot-1, 17-year-old is the physical superior to most others. She ranks among the region’s batting leaders and could have a future at the Division I college level if she wants it.
It’s a contradiction best appreciated by those who have seen how Kiri’s skinny right calf tapers so drastically away from her knee, yet can still supply enough speed for her to stretch a single into a double. They still wonder, though, how an otherwise reserved teenager develops the drive to compete with such ferocity.
“That’s the thing. She has that physical disability and she still outplays and is better than many softball players,” said Liz Bingheim, Kiri’s best friend on the Maroons. “She just works hard all the time — in softball, in the weight room and in the classroom.
“But I seriously can’t always understand how someone can be so committed and so tough in every single aspect. She has had to adapt and, I think, it’s probably a quality she has acquired over time through the things she’s had to go through.”
I will run myself to the ground until I’m told to stop ... it’s not my nature to come up to you and say ‘hey, I can’t do this.’ Others may look at me and think ‘oh, she’s using it as an excuse.’ So I’m not going to stop until you tell me to stop.
But in their first meeting in an orphanage on the other side of the world, Marti Evans recognized something in that glossy-haired toddler that told her she was born with those resilient qualities.
“She was just so tough and bossy and you could just see that she had the kind of spirit that she was not going to be beaten down or anything,” Marti said of her daughter. “She’s going to be just fine and she probably would have been fine (at the orphanage), too. Probably the kid who got her space in the orphanage was the one who really benefited.”
From a basket
There’s no telling why Kiri’s biological parents left her in a basket on the steps of a police precinct.
There are a few likely scenarios though, says Nickey Losse of Children’s Hope International, the St. Louis-based agency that assisted the Evanses in Kiri’s adoption.
Maybe her birth parents didn’t have the financial means to ensure that Kiri’s foot would be repaired and rehabilitated.
It could be that Kiri wasn’t really abandoned to the care of police. That really does happen, Losse says, but sometimes the orphanage will just say the child was left on the stoop to protect the birth parents from the penalties that come with exceeding China’s one-child quota.
“You can speculate, but clearly the parents did it in a way they thought would optimize the chances for her to get some kind of reasonable upbringing,” said Chuck Evans, Kiri’s father.
Catcher is Kiri’s favorite position, playing there on multiple select teams and earned her first starting job for the varsity Maroons as a catcher last spring.
Marti and Chuck Evans, who live in the Oak Hill neighborhood in west Belleville, wanted to extend their comfortable lifestyle to a less-privileged child and expose their older children — daughter Tiernan and son Garrett — to a different culture and less-advanced living standard.
The family came close to getting a child once before the adoption channels between China and the United States temporarily shut down. The Evanses expedited the process a second time by agreeing to take on a child with special needs.
“They send people over to visit the orphanage periodically to see how things are going. They came back from a trip and had a picture and short video of Kiri and said, ‘What do you think?’” said Chuck, a retired executive and business consultant. “I guess before that we had said that, within limitations, a special needs child would be fine. So they said, ‘This young lady has this problem,’ and you could see it on the video that she walked on the ankle and the foot was turned underneath.
“They already had an association with a doctor at Barnes-Jewish (Hospital), so we said OK.”
Clubfoot is a fairly common birth defect that occurs in about one of 1,000 births. The tendons, which connect muscles to bone, are shorter than usual and pull at the affected foot so that it turns inward from the ankle.
The range of severity covers a wide spectrum. Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman’s clubfoot was corrected by the special shoes he wore until he was 3 years old. International soccer star and U.S. Olympian Mia Hamm’s was fixed with a plaster cast.
But Kiri’s clubfoot was bent inward more than 90 degrees, the bottom of her little shoe turned nearly upward like the face of a golf club. The taut tendons had to be severed surgically and reattached with more slack.
They send people over to visit the orphanage periodically to see how things are going. They came back from a trip and had a picture and short video of Kiri and said, ‘what do you think?’
Chuck Evans, Kiri’s father
The Evanses adopted Kiri with the expectation that they would finance the operation and were surprised to find when they arrived in China to pick her up that it already had been done.
“From a mechanical, structural point of view it was a fine job,” Chuck said. “From a cosmetic, external standpoint ... it’s pretty ugly.”
Other procedures have followed, including the most recent, which was to stunt the growth plates in her good leg to keep it from becoming excessively longer than the other.
Lingering effects remain, not the least of which is the additional expense of buying new shoes. Kiri has to get two pairs at a time, one in the size of each of her asymmetrical feet.
Kiri has a lot of pain in the atrophied leg, too, enough that she’s had to give up sports that involve a lot of running and jumping, like soccer and gymnastics. In middle school, she was one of a handful in a recess running club to total 100 miles by year-end. Pushed by competition from a classmate, Kiri kept on running until she got to 200.
Her body grew, but her right foot didn’t. As her day wears on — when fatigue overtakes her focus — those toes sometimes want to point inward and will sometimes catch themselves on her other leg.
“When I think about it, it’s straight. When I don’t think about it, it’s pretty much sideways,” Kiri said. “I can’t put as much pressure on the ankle or the base of my foot because it hurts.
“It used to be a lot worse. Even when I first had the surgery I’d fall a lot. I was always on the ground.”
Adapting to adoption
When she moved in with a new family in a new country more than 13 years ago, the toddler’s limited Chinese vocabulary was quickly overtaken by English. Still, other memories of the Chinese orphanage survived.
“For some reason I remember one of the ladies, ...” Kiri said. “I remember her very well, and I remember her giving me yogurt and I don’t know why. I had this little pink bag with a duck and some animal crackers ... I have a lot of memories of her.”
Not all the memories of adapting to life in the metro-east are as happy. At Emge Junior High on the west end of Belleville, her limp and those dark, almond-shaped eyes made her a target for bullies.
It’s evident in her eyes and in her voice that their words still sting. On her father’s advice, she does her best to keep her distance.
“You still have the same difficulties in high school because there are still some kids who have not matured to the level that you’d hope they would,” she said. “They still make the same immature jokes and it’s just like ‘Ok, you’re in high school now. Grow up.’”
Chuck Evans has been on the Harmony District 175 Board of Education since his daughter was in the sixth grade. Short of a physical assault, he says, the school administration can’t do much about bullying beyond lobbying the students against it.
I seriously can’t always understand how someone can be so committed and so tough in every single aspect. She has had to adapt and, I think, it’s probably a quality she has acquired over time through the things she’s had to go through.
Liz Bingheim, Kiri’s best friend
But he reminds his daughter that relationships are temporary and that she can move on from them whenever she chooses. How she’s is influenced by what they say also is up to her.
“Kids see somebody different — she’s Asian, she’s smaller and she’s smart — and they say things,” Chuck Evans said. “Kiri is who she is, and the teasing and the way she has dealt with it are part of who she has become.”
‘Squish the bug’
Hitting coaches sometimes will tell younger players to “squish the bug” as a reminder to pivot the back foot at the start of a swing. Twisting the foot inward as if grinding an insect into the ground forces opens the hips and, with the hands still back, generates the torque that powers the bat through the strike zone.
Hitting instructor Greg Pennock tried to introduce this concept to Kiri when she was in the sixth grade. He didn’t account, however, for that crooked back foot.
With about a 20-degree head start, her foot turned nearly backward by the time Kiri had squished her bug.
“I was trying to get her to drive off that back foot and she was trying her best,” said Pennock, who also is the head softball coach at Dupo High School. “Then I noticed through the cage on her helmet that tears were coming out of her eyes. It’s all I could do to stop from welling up too, because I was hurting this kid. But I didn’t know.”
It’s not in Kiri’s nature to advocate for herself in such situations. Doing so, in her mind, is tantamount to making excuses and would draw more attention to the very things she’s worked to overcome.
“I won’t say anything. Even now I won’t say anything. To me it’s just giving up and I won’t do that,” she said.
Belleville West head coach Casey Garrett has been contending with Kiri’s “spirit” since she was an “itty-bitty little girl” attending summer softball camp.
As coaches are known to do, Garrett exacts her frustration with a poor team performance through some physical consequence. Her favorite is an added lap or two around the fitness trail that encircles most of the expansive Belleville West campus.
The trail is paved only with fine aggregate. It’s bumpy, uneven and is torture on Kiri’s clubfoot.
Instead of making her run, Garrett will put Kiri onto extra ab work or burpees — an exercise that combines squats, pushups and kickbacks. It’s a rare concession that Kiri will accept, but only if Garrett makes a special point to offer it each and every time the rest of the team hits the trail.
The thing is this: Kiri decided she wanted to be really good and I’ll be damned if she hasn’t gone out and done it ... She just has to do things a little differently than everybody else, that’s all.
Greg Pennock, batting instructor, Dupo softball coach
That doesn’t always happen.
“There are things I need to be watching, but I really don’t think of her differently,” Garrett said. “The other day, I made her do a trail lap because I just forgot.”
Kiri didn’t say a thing to her coach and ran with everybody else, grimacing in pain the whole way. In the fervid effort to prove herself, she admits that she sometimes toes that fine line between determination and over-doing it.
It’s those things she’d like to say to the middle school bullies that Kiri is instead choosing to communicate through raw, determined effort.
“Don’t stop,” she repeats. It’s like her mantra.
“Coach Garrett is learning the hard way that she has to come to me because I will not stop,” Kiri said. “I will run myself to the ground until I’m told to stop. I don’t think she entirely realizes it’s not my nature to come up to you and say, ‘Hey, I can’t do this.’ Others may look at me and think, ‘Oh, she’s using it as an excuse.’ So I’m not going to stop until you tell me to stop.”
Pennock continues to work with Kiri to develop a batting stance and swing that draws on her other strengths. The key to coaching Kiri, he says, is to follow her insistence that she work through her disadvantages, not around them.
“Her foot is going to spin around, so we let it spin around,” he said. “She just has to be quicker in the middle. She has to use more of her core because she doesn’t get the same back-leg drive.
“The thing is this: Kiri decided she wanted to be really good and I’ll be damned if she hasn’t gone out and done it. She has passion, she has drive and she works her tail off. She just has to do things a little differently than everybody else, that’s all.”
Kiri doesn’t play softball within the game’s normal rhythm. She alters the tempo so that the opposition is forced to keep time with her.
If she catches an opposing team’s outfielder in a moment of indecision — say, double pumping on a throw — Kiri will take the extra base. If the infield is a step too deep, she’ll chop one down the line and dare the third baseman to beat her to first with the throw.
She’s fast alright, but it’s awareness that gives her the extra step and what turns singles into doubles.
.436 2016 Kiri’s batting average, sixth in the Southwestern Conference
11 Doubles hit this season, second in the conference
34 Runs scored in 2016, third in the conference
“Her strength on the ball field is just understanding the game, calculating how long a throw takes compared to how long the running will take, noticing if someone in the outfield is distracted, or whatever,” her mother Marti explains. “It’s that big awareness, game-smart thing, as opposed to just physical ability. It’s absorbing all in the information and integrating it into the picture.”
It was a disappointing season for Belleville West, which won just 14 games and was eliminated in the first round of regional play. But Kiri took a place among the area’s elite players.
The Maroons’ lead-off hitter ranked sixth in the Southwestern Conference with a .436 batting average, second in doubles with 11, third with 34 runs scored, and fifth in on-base percentage at .540.
In 126 plate appearances, she’s struck out just 10 times.
4.80 Kiri’s cumulative grade-point-average on a four-point scale
5.00 Kiri’s GPA her junior year
25 Her class rank
“She’s super disciplined at the plate,” said Natalie Peters, the head coach at rival Belleville East. “She can hit a lot of different pitches so it’s hard to figure out what sequences to throw in order to get her out. Plus, she has that great speed. She can drop bunts, she can beat out groundballs. She’s a huge offensive threat and, believe me, I would love to have her over here.”
As a Khoury League player, Kiri was known to pursue the ball wherever it was hit no matter what position she started from. Putting her behind the plate was the best way to pin her down.
It remains her favorite position. She has played there on multiple select teams and earned her first starting job for the varsity Maroons as a catcher last spring.
But with the graduation of four seniors at other key positions, Garrett called on her versatility to fill other gaps this season. She’s played outfield and even shortstop while seeing reduced time behind the plate.
“Lately, we’ve had her in the outfield,” Garrett said. “It’s not necessarily her best position, but she’s the best we’ve got there right now and we really need her.
If she’s objected to the move, of course she would never say so. As Garrett puts it, “She’ll run through a brick wall if you tell her to, or maybe just to show you that she can.”
Garrett and Peters both say all those years behind the plate have helped Kiri develop her softball instincts.
That chip she has on her shoulder helps too.
“As I’ve gotten older, people in the outfield will say, ‘scoot in,’ and I feel like ‘OK, I’m going to have to hit it over your head now,’” Kiri said. “One of my favorite moments is when they all scooted in and I hit it over their heads and ran around the bases. The next time they stayed back and I bunted.”
Best foot forward
Kiri admits she has contemplated the deeper paradox of her life: What if she wasn’t born with the clubfoot?
“If I didn’t have the clubfoot,” she said, “I’d still be back in China.”
There would be no more of that sharp pain she feels at the end of every active day. And she wouldn’t have been the target of immature bullies who hurl insults at anybody who stands out in the crowd.
She would be an ordinary girl in the provinces outlying Shenzhen City, likely doing chores on the family farm after school, then maybe heading off to gymnastics practice on nights and weekends.
“She wouldn’t have known different, you know?” Marti Evans said of how her daughter’s life might be different. “She may have developed different talents over there. She has a lot of different strengths.”
If I do decide on a D-I school, I think I probably won’t play softball. But then I think, ‘what am I going to do if I don’t play softball?
On a warm but windy Saturday afternoon in late April, Kiri doubled, tripled, scored two runs and drove home three more in the 9-3 win over Dupo.
Afterward, she and her parents sat on the comfortable deck of the family’s home and considered the alternatives to orphanages and foot surgeries.
Kiri had released her right foot from its brace and the layer of athletic tape underneath. She was showered, had brushed out her long, black hair and slipped her feet into a comfortable pair of sandals — two different sizes.
“There are so many different variations of what could have happened, so I’m just thankful for it all anyway,” she said. “I mean, how could I have any regret?”
There will always be obstacles and naysayers, she acknowledged, some of them heightened by her crooked foot, others leveled by the innate determination her mother saw from the start. Some days, she says, the challenges get the best of her.
“I’ve definitely had a lot of mental breakdowns and they still go on,” she said. “It’s been really hard.”
Mostly, though, Kiri focuses on the opportunities opened to her by an adoption she believes would never have happened if not for the clubfoot.
Kiri’s clubfoot was bent inward more than 90 degrees and the taut tendons had to be severed surgically and reattached with more slack.
Thanks to a full schedule of advanced-placement classes, Kiri has a cumulative 4.8 grade point average on a four-point scale and is a perfect 5.0 her junior year. Softball or not, she’ll have her pick of colleges.
But Garrett believes Kiri has the skill to play softball at a Division I university, though some recruiters may shy away because of her size and her clubfoot. Kiri says she may prefer a smaller college anyway, one where she can be sure academics remain her focus while continuing to compete on an advanced playing field.
“D-I probably is not going to be the best choice for me,” she said. “If I do decide on a D-I school, I think I probably won’t play softball. But then I think, ‘What am I going to do if I don’t play softball?’”
Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., appeals to her, as does a future career in a medical field, maybe as a physician’s assistant. With another year of high school ahead all plans are strictly tentative.
“She’s in a great spot,” said Garrett. “Kiri can do whatever is laid out in front of her.”
The choices before her are mostly of her own making, her parents say. Kiri can go along with that — it has been her purpose all along to prove there is no contradiction at all between facing a disadvantage and being successful.
“I know if you want to be good at anything it requires a lot of hard work,” she said. “Because I have the clubfoot, I learned that a lot faster.”
- Occurs in about 1 in 1,000 births
- Boys are more likely to be born with it than girls
- Occurs in both feet about half the time
- The range of severity is very wide
- It can frequently be treated with braces, casts, special shoes or therapy, but can be bad enough to require multiple surgeries