The bite of an infected tick cut short Kaylen Baker's basketball prospects, but the Yukon High School senior is enjoying newfound glory as a competitor showing livestock.
The two-time president of the district's FFA program came into the Oklahoma Youth Expo at State Fair Park fresh off a first-place win at the organization's national convention, and already she's got her eyes set on a new prize — a chance to enter Monday night's Sale of Champions.
But just five years ago, raising, grooming and showing pigs was the last thing on the young woman's mind.
A self-proclaimed city-girl by nature, Baker was a cheerleader and a starter on the middle school's undefeated basketball team when she collapsed in pain midway through a game.
It was an unexplainable pain that would persist.
She was experiencing crippling pain in her legs and using a wheelchair to get around. Doctors locally and nationally were unable to diagnose the source of Baker's problem. It wasn't until three years later, when a fellow fan at her brother's basketball game witnessed her condition, that she finally figured it out: It was Lyme disease, and it was ruining her life.
Lyme disease is a tick-borne bacterial infection that is common in North America but very rare in Oklahoma.
While there were more than 250,000 reported infections nationwide in the past decade, there were only eight reported here during that same time period, according to Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
It can cause itching, chills, fever, headache, muscle pain and stiff neck, and untreated it can affect the brain, heart, joints, and the speech of its carrier.
The bacteria had festered in Baker for at least a year before she fell onto the floorboards.
Competitive and social by nature, she said the pain of missing out on her early teenage years was nearly as crippling as the disease. It was hard to read about her former basketball team's triumphs in the newspaper, or to watch her friends stay after school for cheerleader tryouts while she went home.
“It was really tough because that was my love and it was taken away from me,” she said.
Giving it a try
But there was another love hidden in there, yet to be realized. When the high school FFA adviser and a member of Baker's church congregation, Tim Herren, pitched the idea of joining the organization, it didn't take much persuading for her to sign up.
“When I was enrolling in high school, since I could no longer play sports I needed an elective,” she said. “I decided to give ag a try. If I would not have gotten sick I would not be here and I would not be the person I am today.”
Baker's dad showed pigs as a teenager and her mother's family raised pigs in Texas, and so they shipped one up and she got acquainted with a new sort of competition: livestock shows.
Four years later, she's as cutthroat in the show ring as she once was on the boards.
“She did come for the pigs initially, but she realized there was a lot more in the program from the standpoint of leadership,” Herren said. “She's on the livestock judging team, she's a public speaker, she's chapter president two years in a row — she's taken every opportunity the program has and utilized them all.”
It was in public speaking that Baker won the national championship last October. From regionals to the Oklahoma Youth Expo — the state championship, if you will — to Indianapolis, she won over judges with a speech on the assets of a miniature cattle program.
She brought two barrows to the Expo this week — a Hampshire and a crossbred. While she's not confident she will win breed championship, she is sure her hogs are worthy of the market sale. If she makes it, she stands a chance at $3,000 — a hefty jump-start on her tuition and book bills at Oklahoma State University next fall, where she plans to work toward a degree in veterinary science.
Raising and training hogs, then matching them against the best in the state, has lifted Baker from depression, she said. And the Expo is the highlight of the year: a place to meet friends and to ramp up her campaign for an office with the statewide FFA organization.
“I have friends in towns you've probably never heard of before,” she said. “I needed something, and this was the something that could fill that void. Now it's all I think about.”
Adapt and thrive
Herren said it is inspiring to watch Baker adapt and thrive in a field she had no previous experience.
“I think it caught her by surprise, but when she got involved and saw the diversity of agriculture in terms of leadership, she grabbed hold of that and ran,” he said. “There were times I knew she'd better take it easy, she's hurting, but you could see her get stronger as time went.”
And Baker still hurts, she said. The pain is less severe than previously, but she's used to it and believes it is slowly receding.
Plus, there are more painful things to worry about, such as saying goodbye Monday to the hogs she's mothered for the past six months.
“It will be really hard to get rid of this year's pigs because they'll be the last pigs I ever have, so I'm sure I'll be bawling like a baby,” she said.