LYNNWOOD — During family vacations in more remote parts of the state, away from the ambient light of civilization, sometimes Hayley Kesselring will gaze into the star-filled night sky.
If the conditions are just right, she might be able to spot one of the brightest stars.
“Those are just little things that I take for granted,” said Hayley’s father, Scott. “I see stars every evening (at home) in the summertime. That’s not something that Hayley gets to experience.”
Hayley, 15, was born with impaired vision in both eyes. Though various procedures over the years have preserved and improved her sight, surgery can only fix so much.
With corrective contact lenses that she wears during her waking hours, Hayley has 20-120 vision in her right eye. That means she must be 20 feet away to see what someone with normal vision could see from 120 feet. In her left eye — her better eye — she has 20-60 vision.
Hayley’s eyes lack the ability to focus, meaning they have perfect clarity at only one point — within about 12 inches of her face. Beyond that point, her sight gets progressively more blurry as the distance increases.
“If you saw her playing a video game or watched her read, she’s got that screen or that book within 12 inches of her face, because that’s where it’s the clearest,” Scott said. “Because they don’t focus, anything outside of that clear point just starts to fade.”
But despite her visual challenges, Hayley excels on the basketball court.
The Meadowdale freshman is the starting point guard for the Mavericks’ C-team, averaging about 10 points and three 3-pointers per game.
“It’s just amazing the type of player she’s become, (considering) that obstacle,” Meadowdale coach Caitlyn Houvener said. “I wouldn’t know that she has a vision impairment. She does such a good job overcoming it. It’s really inspiring to see.”
Hayley said that when she was younger and her parents first talked to her about her vision impairment, she made a decision to not let it hinder her. It’s an approach she’s carried throughout her life, especially in basketball.
“Life isn’t about what is thrown at you — it’s how you react to it,” Houvener said. “And she’s a great example of that. She hasn’t let that situation get her down and prevent her from following her dreams and doing things she loves. She’s fearless.”
Hayley was born with bilateral cataracts, meaning her natural lenses in both eyes were cloudy instead of clear. In her first six months, she had two cataract surgeries that removed the natural lens in each eye.
Yet for Hayley, that only solved part of the problem.
She also was born with small eyes and small pupils that don’t dilate, meaning her pupils don’t widen or contract based on the amount of light. In addition, her eyes have never been able to focus.
“Other kids are born with cataracts, but their eyes still function,” Scott said. “Unfortunately for Hayley, on top of having the cataracts, her eyes didn’t develop properly in the womb.
“Being born with cataracts, her eyes were just never able to develop properly right out of the gate.”
Hayley’s next surgeries came at about age 6, when she underwent two corneal transplants in her left eye. The first transplant wasn’t successful, but the second one worked. It likely kept her from going blind in that eye, her parents said.
“The doctor felt very adamant that if we had not done that cornea transplant, she probably would’ve lost sight in that eye,” Scott said.
Hayley had another procedure in August 2016, undergoing iridoplasty surgery in her right eye to allow more light to flow in and reflect off the retina. Also during the procedure, Hayley’s pupil was centered to further improve her retina’s ability to reflect light.
The surgery improved her right eye’s vision, with a corrective lens, from 20-200 to 20-120.
“That surgery just made everything clearer in that eye,” Hayley said. “If a (basketball player) is on my right side, it’s easier to see her now.”
Hayley, who began playing basketball at age 5, comes from a hoops family. Her mother, Shana, played at Seattle University and Scott played through high school. One of Hayley’s older sisters, Taylor, is the starting point guard on Meadowdale’s varsity team.
Hayley also played soccer during her youth, but ultimately decided to focus on basketball. She struggled tracking the ball on soccer’s large field, and night games only made it more difficult.
“Different lighting affects her vision,” Scott said. “Her pupils don’t dilate — they don’t open in the dark and close when it’s sunny. They’re always small, so night vision is almost nonexistent.”
The controlled lighting and smaller confines of a basketball court were a much better fit for Hayley’s eyes.
“It’s just a better opportunity for her to succeed in the game of basketball,” Scott said.
Hayley’s biggest challenge on the hardwood is her lack of peripheral vision.
“With the lack of peripheral vision, it’s really difficult to have a strong sense for what all is happening on the court — with all the chaos and nine other players out there,” Scott said. “It’s very challenging for her to track a person on the defensive side of the ball.”
The lack of peripheral vision can pose similar challenges on offense.
Scott, who coached Hayley in youth basketball, shared a telling example. One time after watching his daughter make a difficult cross-court pass, Scott, out of curiosity, asked why she didn’t pass to a much closer teammate instead.
“I never saw her,” she responded.
Over the years, Hayley has developed ways to compensate for what she can’t see.
On defense, she scoots back to minimize the blind spots in her peripheral vision. And if the player she’s guarding is about to slip out of sight, Hayley tries to keep track of her by lightly touching her jersey.
On the other side of the ball, when Hayley is leading a fastbreak, teammates often communicate with her if they are running in her peripheral blind spots. Sometimes, Hayley even uses her keen ears to hear opposing players behind her.
“My hearing is better than most people, because it substitutes for the vision,” she said. “I can hear girls coming up behind me if their shoes are squeaky. I’ll just scoot back and let them run past me, or make a move and go behind them.”
Perhaps most impressive is Hayley’s prowess as a 3-point shooter.
“Because she has to focus so hard,” Scott said, “I think it almost enhances the ability to make those shots. If she’s going to let that thing fly, she knows she has to really be honing in on exactly where that target is.”
“She definitely can catch and shoot,” Taylor added. “She’s a better shooter than me.”
Hayley and Taylor share a special bond as sisters, and often are each other’s most vocal supporters at games.
“I can always hear them in the stands cheering for each other,” Houvener said. “(And) in practice, Taylor really is the big sister and can tell when Hayley’s having a hard time. She’ll come alongside her and say, ‘You’ve got it, Hayley.’ It’s fun to watch their relationship.”
Taylor said she is amazed by her younger sister and the obstacles she has overcome.
“From watching her play, I forget that she has the impairment,” Taylor said. “I couldn’t imagine being in her position and dealing with what she has to deal with. The way she does is very moving.”
Houvener said Hayley is an inspiration to those around her.
“She makes me want to chase after some dreams that I’ve maybe put on the backburner, and (that) I don’t have a reason not to chase,” Houvener said.
“Seeing a kid like her not let anything get in the way of what she wants to accomplish, (it) makes me want to do more and be more. She’s such an inspiration. She’s such an awesome kid.”