Spirited

Kim Sandstrom persevered through college basketball injuries, and is grateful for what the experience taught her.

It’s nighttime in Plover, Wis., just south of Stevens Point. A young kid is fielding a tennis ball she’s thrown against her patio wall. On her toes, she moves closer and closer to the wall, honing her reflexes and hand/eye coordination. Of course, the kid – who’s 7 or so – probably doesn’t know much about reflexes or hand/eye coordination. All she knows is that she loves playing ball, and that she wants to get better at it.

In fact, the kid – Kim Sandstrom – just loves sports. Everything about sports. All sports. And she’s good at them too. “I had an athletic sort of build and strength that a lot of girls didn’t have,” says Sandstrom, who is director of purchasing at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics in Madison.

From a pitching mound in her backyard, she’d practice overhand pitching. “I would ask my friend across the street to catch for me; we’d keep track of strikes and balls. After dinner, I’d ask my dad to play basketball or hit softballs to me. He’d hit them in the road; I’d learn which way to turn to catch them. And I’d take the tennis ball and go close up to the brick wall and throw it really hard. I’d be totally obsessed with it. I’d be out there for hours.”

In fact, Sandstrom never lost her interest in sports. In high school, she would be recognized for her skills in softball and basketball. Then, in her senior year, she would become the first woman to be offered a full basketball scholarship by the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. Injuries would curtail her playing time and force her to face the limitations that her body imposed on her. But the experience changed her forever.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today without athletics,” she says.

Height was an advantage
Sandstrom was born in April 1968 in Superior, Wis., at the western tip of Lake Superior. Soon afterward, the family moved to Plover when her father, an elementary school principal, landed a job in Stevens Point. Plover had a good youth sports program, and as she got older, Sandstrom got involved, initially in softball, then basketball. Her height was a definite advantage on the basketball court. “I was always taller than practically everyone else, even the boys, through junior high.” In sixth grade, she stood 5 feet 8 inches; by high school, she was 5-foot 11. And in college, she reached 6-foot 1.

Though she had talent as a basketball player, she received more recognition in softball. Her high school team – Stevens Point Area Senior High, or SPASH – went to the state tournament all three years she was there. (In the Stevens Point area, junior high encompassed seventh, eighth and ninth grade, while high school was grades 10, 11 and 12.) A third-baseman, Sandstrom made All-Conference and All-State.

“We had a coach who was just awesome,” she says, speaking of softball coach Marcy Mirman. “She was passionate.” Her drills and conditioning exercises kept the girls in top shape, and Sandstrom’s college coaches commented on her conditioning. “[Mirman] really pushed me and instilled confidence in me.”

Meanwhile, Sandstrom was improving her basketball skills as well. Given her height, she played forward for most of her years at SPASH. But toward the end of her years there, she played at the guard position. “I had a pretty fundamental, broad base of skills,” she says. “I didn’t bring the ball up the court, but I was capable of handling the ball and finding the open person.” With a number of talented players as starters, no one person dominated the SPASH team. “We had a balanced attack, because we could,” she says. “And whoever was sort of hot would shoot.”

One thing that affected the shooting game of all the girls on the team was the fact that they were using the same size ball as the boys and men. (Today, the circumference of a men’s ball is 29.5 to 30 inches, and its weight between 20 and 22 ounces. The circumference of a women’s ball is 28.5 to 29 inches, with a weight of 18 to 20 ounces.) “Girls just didn’t have the shooting skills they do now, or the range. We shot closer in.” Many of the girls stayed away from jump shots, focusing instead on set shots. “We weren’t as good as shooters as they are now, so it wasn’t as much of a focus,” says Sandstrom. (Soon after she graduated from high school, the smaller ball was introduced at that level. It was already in use at most colleges.) Another consequence of using the larger, heavier ball was the limits it placed on the girls’ ability to dribble and pass the ball. “You can handle a small ball better and quicker, and your passing is better, because the ball is lighter.”

Success in high school, as well as supportive teammates, boosted her confidence and skills in the sport. But something else sparked her interest in basketball.

In fact, it was an exciting time for basketball lovers in central Wisconsin. Much of that excitement was due to Dick Bennett, a well-known coach of men’s college basketball. Born in 1943, Bennett began his collegiate coaching career in the mid-1980s at University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, where he won 173 games. He was named the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) Coach of the Year after the 1983-84 season. In 1985, Bennett moved to University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, where he stayed for 10 years, helping land the team in a number of NCAA tournament berths. In 1995, he went to the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and in his fifth season, led the Badgers to the Final Four.

While she was in high school, Sandstrom’s dad took her to the Pointers games, where Bennett was coaching. “They had an awesome team,” she says. “He is the god of defense.” As luck would have it, Bennett hosted basketball camps during the summer, which Sandstrom attended in high school. “It was unbelievable, the kind of things he was teaching about defense,” she says. Sandstrom and her teammates took the lessons to heart, which is one of the reasons their high school team developed a solid defensive game.

By her junior year of high school, Sandstrom had attracted the attention of a number of Midwestern schools for her abilities in both basketball and softball. “It was a hard decision, because I had received more recognition in softball than basketball,” probably because of the dominance of the SPASH team. But softball at the college level just didn’t look as exciting to her as it had been in high school. And her interest in basketball was only growing.

When the University of Wisconsin Green Bay offered her a basketball scholarship, she took a serious look at it. At the time, the women’s team was moving from the NAIA to Division 1 NCAA ball. (The men’s team had already made the transition.) “The potential I saw at Green Bay, moving to Division 1 and getting to that higher level of competition, was pretty exciting to me,” she says. So she accepted Green Bay’s offer and reported to campus in the fall of 1986. “I think I made the right decision,” she says.

College ball
Sandstrom enjoyed a productive freshman year on the court, primarily in the forward positions. In fact, after Thanksgiving, she started many of the games. “I was really hopeful,” she says. “I played well, people had a lot of confidence in me. It was like, ‘There’s this tall person who can actually shoot.’”

But during preseason drills prior to her sophomore season in 1987, Sandstrom sustained the first of her college injuries. “I tweaked my knee in practice, then realized the next day I could hardly straighten it,” she recalls. A scope revealed that she had a partial tear of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). After minor surgery, she donned a brace, but had to sit out the season. In February 1988, she began to practice with the team again. “We were doing a drill. Nobody was around me. I came down, did a jump stop and was going to shoot when my knee totally went. It was the most pain I ever felt.” Not only did she tear her cartilage and ligament, but she fractured the end of her femur as well. She was in the hospital for a week. Naturally, the injury ended her season before she got a chance to start it. Consequently, her sophomore year was considered a redshirt year for her, meaning that even though she could not play, she was still considered a member of the team and remained eligible for her scholarship. (It also guaranteed her a five-year college career.)

Rehab for the second injury was long and laborious. When she was able, she began doing water running in the deep end of the pool. Then in the fall of 1988, she started running on pavement. “At that point, straight running was not easy. It was like I was starting over again. I couldn’t imagine playing basketball.”

Even so, she never seriously considered dropping basketball. “I didn’t have an alternative,” she says. “What else would I do?” She was, in fact, able to play sparingly in the spring of 1989, and later that summer, competed with the UW-Green Bay team at the 1989 Seoul International Invitational Basketball Tournament in Seoul, South Korea.

The 1989-90 season proved to be just as difficult. Perhaps because she had been compensating for the injury to her left knee, Sandstrom developed a painful, debilitating stress fracture in her right hip during the preseason. Common in athletes, including basketball players, stress fractures are caused by low-level forces (such as pounding a gym floor with your feet) delivered repetitively and over a long period of time. Unable to perform surgery because of the location of the injury, doctors told Sandstrom that she had just one option: stay off her feet as much as possible. “That wiped out that year,” she says.

Sandstrom returned to the court for the 1990-91 season, in which UW-Green Bay won 22 games and lost six. She played in 21 games and scored 33 points in that final season. “But it was a tough season mentally,” she says. “I felt like, ‘I’m just going to try to survive here. This whole thing didn’t turn out like I wanted it to.’

“I remember calling my parents saying, ‘I can’t do this.’ I was frustrated seeing all my teammates and people who had come into the program after me pass by.”

The injuries had taught Sandstrom that she wouldn’t be able to pursue a professional career in basketball. “I realized my body wasn’t made for pounding, day in and day out,” she says. Her opportunities in the United States would have been limited, in any case. At the time, there were no professional women’s basketball leagues in the United States. The Women’s Professional Basketball League had disbanded after three seasons in 1981, and the Women’s National Basketball Association would not be formed until 1996.

But the call of the sporting was strong, as it had been since her childhood. In the spring of 1991, shortly before her graduation, she was invited to play team handball, an Olympic event which is kind of like soccer, instead of kicking a soccer ball, the team members throw a handball. “It’s really physical,” she says of the sport. “It’s kind of a cross between soccer, hockey and basketball.” Sandstrom excelled, and that summer was invited to play at the U.S. Olympic Festival in Los Angeles, which would lead to the selection of the team that would participate in the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. Sandstrom didn’t make the cut, but had a good time participating.

With a degree in human biology, Sandstrom graduated from UW-Green Bay in 1991 and took a job in Madison,

Wis., as a pharmacy technician for Innovative Pharmacy Services (now NeighborCare), a pharmacy serving long-term-care facilities. When the company needed a buyer, she took the job. After eight years there, she was ready for a change, and applied for a job as a purchasing agent at the University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics in Madison. She started there in 1999. In May 2007, she was named purchasing director, two years after earning a master’s in business administration.

‘Can’t skip practice’
After college, Sandstrom continued to play basketball in recreational leagues. She participated in the Badger State Games, an Olympic-style competition for amateur athletes across Wisconsin. “I did a lot of playing,” she says. “It was kind of freeing. I had totally healed. I had gained confidence in my knee. It was fun.” She continued to participate in team sports until four or five years ago, when her knee became too sore for her to continue. Today, she does light walking and yoga, and she works out on non-impact exercise machines. She lives with her partner of 12 years, Patti Batt.

On Sept. 15, 2007, Sandstrom was inducted into the Stevens Point Area Senior High Hall of Fame. Her old softball coach – Marcy Mirman – was on hand to present her with the award.

Despite the injuries, Sandstrom wouldn’t trade her past for anything. Participating in athletics taught her teamwork, perseverance, leadership and discipline, she says. It also gave her mental toughness. “You can’t skip practice,” she says. “And for me, it was staying the course. So many times I wanted to say, ‘I quit,’ but I feel good that I made it through the whole ordeal. Now I can talk about it and see that it really helped me as a person.”

The Sandstrom File
Raised in: Plover, Wis.
Age: 39
Title: Director of purchasing, University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics
College/major: University of Wisconsin-Green Bay/Human Biology
Noteworthy: First woman to receive a basketball scholarship to UW-Green Bay.

Hall of Fame Citation
The following is from the citation for the induction of Kim Sandstrom into the Stevens Point Area Senior High School Panthers Athletics Hall of Fame, Sept. 15, 2007.

Kim graduated from SPASH in 1986. As a three-year starter in both basketball and softball, Kim earned six varsity letters. She was selected captain for softball and All-Conference/All-State in both sports.

In basketball, she earned honorable mention All-Conference as a junior, 1st team All-Conference and honorable mention All-State as a senior. She led the team in field goal shooting at 56 percent and held the Wisconsin Valley Conference record in free throw shooting at 87 percent.

In softball, she earned all-conference and honorable mention All-State as a sophomore, 1st team All-Conference and 1st team All-State as a junior, and 1st team All-Conference and 1st team All-State as a senior. All three years, SPASH softball earned a trip to the state championship, and her senior year, won their first ever State Championship in Class A with a record of 22-2.

Kim was named to the Wisconsin Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) All-Star North team after her senior year. She was the first female from SPASH to receive a Division I full scholarship in any sport and signed a National Letter of Intent to play women’s basketball at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. This was also the first full women’s basketball scholarship in UWGB’s school history.

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