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Despite setbacks, student wouldn't trade sports 'for the world'

Two Harbors junior Tori Bott has made her way back from back surgery at age 13 to become a three sport standout for the Agates. (News-Chronicle photo by Jamey Malcomb)1 / 4
Two Harbors' Tori Bott shoots a free-throw during a Section 7AA quarterfinals game against International Falls March 4 at Romano Gym at the University of Minnesota Duluth. (File photo by Adelle Whitefoot)2 / 4
Two Harbors' Tori Bott throws the ball to first during a 2016 game against Carlton at Chub Lake Field in Twin Lakes Township. (File photo by Adelle Whitefoot)3 / 4
Two Harbors' Tori Bott hits the ball over the net during a 2015 match against Cromwell in Two Harbors. (Photo by Jill Innis)4 / 4

Last month, Two Harbors junior Tori Bott traveled to Orlando, Fla., for an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) volleyball tournament, but she wasn't sure how the team would perform after an underwhelming performance at the team's last tournament in Wisconsin Dells.

The Minnesota North 16 White team sharpened its serve receives and passing at the national tournament and after coming in 18th at the much smaller Wisconsin tournament, they finished fifth of 128 teams at the Florida tournament.

"We weren't sure how we would do in Orlando because we had a rough tournament in Wisconsin Dells just two weeks before, but when we got there a switch just turned on," Tori said. "I think that we all knew that this tournament is the biggest in the world, and if we don't do well here, the rest of the nine months doesn't matter."

The moment was a culmination of nine months of hard work for the team, but for Bott it was much, much more.

More than three years ago, at the beginning of her eighth grade basketball season, Tori herniated a disc in her back while lifting weights and there was a fear by Tori and her parents that she may never play competitive sports again, a heartbreaking prospect for someone who is a major contributor on the Agate basketball and softball teams.

"When she was 13 we thought she'd never be able to play sports again, she had to have back surgery," said Sue Bott, Tori's mother. "She missed the entire year, she wasn't able to do anything."

After surgery in January 2014, Tori started the painful and often grueling rehabilitation program that would eventually get her back strong enough to play volleyball, basketball and softball for the Agates as well as the AAU team she joined late last year. Throughout the next year, Tori spent many of her mornings before school doing physical therapy with her mother and father, Tom Bott, ferrying her back and forth to Bodies in Balance in Two Harbors. Sue said the initial appointment with her doctor was "eye opening" about what was in front of her daughter.

"Tori refused to take the idea that she couldn't play as possible, she always just asked what do I need to do now, and she did everything they said," Sue said. "She had to retrain how to bend over, how to pick things up. It's a lifetime problem that she's going to have to deal with for her back."

Throughout the rehabilitation process, Tori put on a brave face but she certainly had moments of doubt and the absence of sports in her life was difficult for someone where competition has been a constant part of her daily life since she was a little girl.

"I wanted to cry because I couldn't bend over and I couldn't walk. I was just emotional all of the time," Tori said. "Sports are my getaway and to not have it for nine months was just so hard for me."

Tori grew up in a neighborhood with mostly boys and so she learned playing with her brother Tim and the other boys she lived near.

"She grew up in a neighborhood with boys and an older brother, so they were always looking for ways to include her," Tom said. "She'd roll with the punches, she'd take her licks and get in there. They didn't cut her any slack either. Between capture the flag and games in the backyard, she's one for whom sports have always been good for her."

When she was coming back from her surgery, some of her basketball teammates stepped in and helped her out. During the offseason before her freshman year, Carina Hebl, Cassie Prince, Brianna Hiukka and Katie Archer would get together to play 2-on-2 basketball to help her get the feel of the basketball court. The pick up games did more than just get her used to being on the court again, it started to fill the void Tori had felt of being on a team, the thing she loves most about sports.

"The team feel about it drives me to do well," she said. "I just love the game. Every game that I play, I just love it, I wouldn't trade it for the world. All of my sports are team oriented and my favorite part of the game is just being with my friends on a team."

During AAU play, Tori had tournaments almost every weekend in the Twin Cities that her parents had to drive her to, plus she was still playing basketball and softball. After joining AAU team, Tori would arrive at school up to an hour early to catch up on missed classes or homework, would go to Two Harbors practices for a couple hours and two to three times a week she would go down to Duluth Marshall for two hour AAU practices. She would get back home about 10 p.m. and start her homework again before heading to bed for about five hours of sleep and then get up and do it all again.

"I don't know how she can function honestly," Sue said. "She's up every morning on her own and out the door, homework is done, goes to the gym in the morning, school all day, then practice... I have no idea how she keeps this schedule straight."

For Tori, however, it's all about the team. Even when things aren't going well, like last winter when a rash of injuries nearly derailed the Agates' basketball season after starting 11-0, the team came together. At one point, Hebl, Archer, Brianna McGrath and Ayla Lemke all missed playing time and, just like when her back was ailing, the team came together and eventually set a record for wins by an Agate squad.

"We had a lot of injuries last season, so we were really set back," Tori said. "But we really came together and we all had each other's back. That's my favorite part, that when someone goes down, someone else is always there to pick them up."

Jamey Malcomb

Jamey Malcomb has been a reporter for the Pine Journal since October 2018. He previously worked as a reporter for the Lake County News-Chronicle from 2015-2018. Malcomb is a native of North Carolina and holds a bachelor's degree in English and history from the George Washington University and a master's degree in education from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. Malcomb moved to Minnesota in July 2012 and worked as a sports clerk and news assistant at the Duluth News Tribune. 

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