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Stuck together

David Adlerstein
The Apalach Times
The Apalach Times

It’s a small world, and this spring Alexus Johnson and Thais Uyema Kanashiro squeezed the Western Hemisphere portion of the planet even tighter.

You might say they turned the two Americas into something bigger than a softball but smaller than a baseball diamond.

The two young women both played for the top-ranked Chipola College Indians softball team this past year.

For Johnson, a 2019 Franklin County High School graduate who starred throughout her career as a Lady Seahawk, it was her freshman debut.

For Uyema, it was her sophomore year, a second year playing at Chipola, after being recruited off the Peruvian National Team to play second base for the Indians.

The teammates played together throughout the fall and into the spring, until the coronavirus hit, and with it came a sudden shutdown not only of the spring softball season, but of all classes on-campus.

Shocked, disappointed, frustrated, as so many were, it all came down to moving indoors and completing work online. And that soon meant packing up and going home, and saying adios to a highly unusual 2019-20 school year

For Alexus, it was doable. Chipola’s only about 98 miles away, and her parents, Kim and Brock Johnson, and younger sister Abby and brother Brody would have to make only minor adjustments in the household lineup to have big sister back home.

For Uyema, it was an entirely different story.

’No problem with my parents at all’

"I'm stuck here because my country just got put on lockdown for two weeks," she told a TV station back in mid-March. “I was trying to go home this week but the flight got canceled and our president gave a message explaining what's their plan.

“Hopefully everything is better by the end of March,” she said.

"The situation is Czech Republic isn't good right now. We are in lockdown and we can't even leave our houses,” said teammate Natalie Kopicova, a freshman outfielder and one of six international students – the others from New Zealand, Brazil, Russia and the Netherlands - on associate head coach Jimmy Hendrix’s roster.

So for Johnson, it basically came down to a “Hey mom, hey dad, can Thais sleep over?” situation.

“We were pretty close at school,” she said. “I try to be pretty helpful when it comes to my friends. It was no problem with my parents at all.”

That was four months ago.

“She was supposed to go back and they said they shut down the international flights and everything and she couldn’t go back for a few weeks,” said Johnson Monday afternoon. “Then they pushed it back another few weeks. It keeps getting pushed back definitely for sure, but she’ll be leaving on Wednesday.”

You can imagine more than a few tears were shed when Uyema left Tallahassee for a Thursday flight out of Miami back to her hometown of Lima, Peru.

“I’m going to be sad,” said Johnson. “I know she’s ready to go back, especially being here in another country than her parents, it’s been very hard on her.”

Uyema has FaceTimed her family every night, and based on the sentiments shown on her Facebook page, she’s a pretty upbeat young woman, with a cheerful approach to life.

But like COVID-19, there’s no cure yet. For homesickness.

“It has been so long,” she said. “I really want to see my family. Seeing all my friends with their families makes you miss them sometimes.”

Recruited off the Peruvian National Team

Uyema has been mastering the diamond ever since she was a girl of 6, growing up playing baseball with her brothers. Both her parents - her father an administrator in the construction materials industry, and her mom a businesswoman with school supplies – are of Japanese descent, with ties to a nation with an unmatched enthusiasm for the great American pastime.

“I started in baseball and took over softball at age 12,” said Uyema. “They won’t allow girls to play baseball; they don’t want girls playing with the boys.”

A student at the bilingual, private Abraham Lincoln School in Lima, she soon distinguished herself as an infielder, earning a spot on the national team.

As a member of the 19-and-under squad, Uyema played in tournaments that put her and her teammates up against teams from Japan, China, Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico, as they traveled as far as Spain, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Aruba and of course the United States.

It was on one such tourney against the Americans that Chipola decided to reel her in, to help in the college’s quest for a national championship, which they earned last year, during Uyema’s freshman year.

In fact the Indians were well on their way to defending that title, with a 28-4 record and No. 4 national ranking, when the 2019 season was suddenly struck out.

When the shutdown hit, right at the beginning of spring season, Johnson was hitting her stride.

She had come back strong after Christmas break, following an introductory fall season.

“We got back practicing a lot and I started performing a lot better,” said Johnson.

With the exception of one bad outing in early February against College of Central Florida, she was playing error-free ball as a fielder at first and third bases. At the plate, in two dozen games, she was hitting .333, with 15 hits at 45 at-bats, including two doubles, two home runs, 11 runs batted in, 16 runs scored and seven stolen bases.

“I was actually impressed by myself the little we got to play,” Johnson said.

This summer, she’s managed to get in some softball.

Still not yet 19, she and Abby played in the 18-and-under division for the Impact team out of Chipola. Earlier this month the team took on squads from as far as Ohio, Oklahoma, Georgia and Alabama in a World Series Tournament in Panama City Beach.

“It wasn’t as big as it normally is,” Johnson said.

The two sisters played a variety of positions, and in the end Impact finished second overall in the tournament.

’It’s been really nice’

But for far more than even softball, it’s been a memorable spring and summer, especially after classes ended in the beginning of May, for the two young women.

“Right now in Peru it’s winter and she’s been able to spend time at the beach with us,” Johnson said. “She’s done a lot of first. The first time she’s ever been up the river.”

Uyema had never tried a Twinkie before – “She never even heard of it” – and one time when they all went to a restaurant, she tried hush puppies for the first time, not entirely sure what that name meant.

“At first she thought it was an actual dog,” Johnson said. “She was pretty confused what it was. She’s learned a lot here.

“It’s actually been nice, it’s added another person to our family,” she said. “It’s been really nice having someone else here my age.”

And coming from a country with only eight golf courses, and only some of them public, Uyema has even taken in some golf, playing rounds with their former Chipola teammate, and Johnson’s roommate, Melanie Collins, who now devotes herself entirely to readying a college golf career.

Uyema knows she’ll be returning to a country that after its early strict lockdown, has been hard-hit by the pandemic, with one of the highest death rates in the region.

“We have a lot of cases,” she said. “During the quarantine, in a lot of small cities, they wouldn’t listen to it so the virus spread more.

“Happily nothing happened to my family,” said Uyema, whose private flight home is reserved exclusively for Peruvians. “It’s been so long. I’m going to try to stay safe.”

Leaving on that jet plane will mean leaving behind a second family to reunite with her first.

“It’s been amazing. I have no experience like it,” said Uyema. “Every time they make me feel like one of their family. At this point I’m really thankful for them. I love all of them, really appreciate them.

“I think staying here was one of my best experiences,” she said. “It’s so different from my town. I would never have experienced something like that.

“I don’t know a lot of people who will do this for somebody,” said Uyema. “Give them their home.”