Standing out is all Emma Yeager knows

Soccer has always offered an escape for sophomore Emma Yeager, who has shined on the field since she was 5.

Emma+Yeager+pumps+her+first+as+her+teammates+rush+to+congratulate+her+after+scoring+her+third+goal+against+Porter+on+March+12.+Her+final+goal+of+the+game+was+her+41st+of+the+year+and+put+her+atop+the+record+books+for+goals+in+a+season+at+Kingwood+Park.

Maya Ortiz

Emma Yeager pumps her first as her teammates rush to congratulate her after scoring her third goal against Porter on March 12. Her final goal of the game was her 41st of the year and put her atop the record books for goals in a season at Kingwood Park.

By Maya Ortiz, Kingwood Park High School

Emma Yeager wonders what being normal even means. 

To the sophomore, normal is missing sleepovers and parties for soccer practices and games. Normal is scoring goals around the country as one of the best 16-year-old forwards in the region. Normal is sometimes taping your torn shoes together and moving multiple times because layoffs during COVID hit too close to home.

“You are not normal,” Kim Yeager tells her daughter Emma regularly. “Don’t wish that you were normal. You’ve never been normal. You’ll never get to be normal. You’re exceptional. And one of these days you are going to look back and think, ‘My youth was the best because I wasn’t normal.’”

******* 

Soccer has always been Emma’s thing. At age 5, she would play goalie and still steal the ball, run down the field and score.

Emma, 5, was always outside kicking the ball in rain, sleet or snow in Illinois. (Photo submitted by Kim Yeager)

At age 7, she joined the most competitive club in St. Louis, making her soccer schedule more complicated. The success continued when she moved to Kingwood in fourth grade. By middle school, she was attending U.S. Soccer invitation-only camps and became a member of the regional all-state team.  

While her status as a player-to-watch rose, soccer became her main escape as challenges hit home. 

When Emma’s freshman season started, she was living in a 4-bedroom home with her parents, grandmother, brother Grayson and his wife. By the time COVID hit a few months later, Emma found herself in a 2-bedroom apartment with just her mom. 

“We were just the most normal middle class family,” Kim Yeager said. “And suddenly everything was gone.”

It started in January 2018 when Emma’s dad fell ill, causing him to miss work for most of that year. He then worked out of state most of 2019, leaving a void for the close-knit family. After the pandemic hit in March 2020, Dave Yeager got laid off twice in the span of four months.

“[Soccer] was a major distraction of everything that was happening around me,” Emma Yeager said. “When you are playing soccer you don’t have an opportunity to think of anything other than the game at that moment.”

Sophomore Emma Yeager has trained at the US Olympic Training Center in California. She received her first Division I college offer to play soccer when she was in 8th grade. (Submitted by Kim Yeager)

Major changes took place at home. Emma’s soccer trips became the family’s only vacations – with soccer being the only item on the agenda each time. They also downsized to an apartment, prompting Emma’s brother and his wife to move out. Also, Emma’s grandma was placed in a nursing home.

Emma was suddenly stuck in the apartment when COVID hit. Without school and soccer, she missed her home packed with family.

“She survived all of those changes because of who she is,” Kim Yeager said. “Self-sufficient, independent and seeing the bigger picture.”

 ******

Things were already looking better when her sophomore season started this past December. 

Her family was preparing to move into a home in Elm Grove, where her brother and sister-in-law would join them again. Emma was ready for a high school season in which she hoped to lead her team to the playoffs and break the school single-season scoring record.

She did both of those things. She scored three goals against Porter on March 12. As No. 41 hit the back of the net, she pumped her fists and jumped as her teammates rushed to her side.

“I actually didn’t think that shot was going to go in,” Emma said of the record-breaking goal. “It was a very desperate attempt, but there was so much adrenaline.”

She looked into the stands after the goal and saw her parents and brother. Even her dad, who often misses games for work, was standing and cheering with the others. 

Grayson rushed to the store to buy a cake, candles and balloons. For the small family, that night was a moment of celebration after three years of highs and lows.

“She was on cloud nine for forever that night,” Kim Yeager said.

******

Only one void remained – Emma’s grandma. 

Emma and her grandma Nicki sit together on a chair. They spent many days together during Emma’s entire childhood. (Photo submitted by Kim Yeager)

Unlike her brother who attended daycare, Emma was watched by her grandparents growing up. Her grandmother had an art room and worked with Emma daily, helping foster a close-knit relationship and a creative passion Emma uses as a stress-reliever.

Though Emma had braced herself for the day her grandma would have to move out, it still affects her. Emma’s grandma struggles with Alzheimer’s and didn’t recognize her granddaughter the last time they saw each other. 

“I miss her a lot,” said Emma, who has won numerous art awards and sold her artwork to earn spending money. “I wish she was still in her right mind to be there to support me and see who I’ve grown into.”

That child her grandma laughed with daily in the art room is now eyeing colleges and professional soccer possibilities. 

Her high school coach Jess White calls her humble and confident with a hunger to succeed. 

Her mom calls her exceptional. 

No one calls her normal. But to Emma, this is all she knows. 

“It’s hard to withdraw from everything and put your life in perspective,” she says. “It’s hard to notice the differences between how you and someone else might have grown up.” 

For Emma, her life is her normal. And she likes it. 

This story was originally published on Park Times on May 5, 2021.