Tjaden inspires Rainbow Wahine behind the scenes

justine tjaden

Just about the time Justine Tjaden should have been sorting through her college options she was restricted to a hospital bed, unaware as yet of how her world would change.

At 16, Tjaden was heading into her junior year at Murietta Valley (Calif.) High School and hopeful of drawing a softball scholarship when she became ill and was diagnosed with Lemierre’s Syndrome.

The rare disease caused severe blood clots and she was put on a breathing tube. She was hospitalized for a month, spending 17 days in a medically induced coma. When she awoke, softball was among her initial thoughts.

Tjaden said she felt like she “was just taking a nap and I woke up and the first thing I asked my mom actually was, ‘can I still play?’ ”

“And she just looked up at the nurse and they’re, ‘I don’t know,’ and that just broke my heart.”

Along with the blood clots, she had suffered nerve damage in her legs and developed a condition commonly known as “dropfoot,” which made it difficult to walk much less run.

While getting back on the field became a long shot at best, Tjaden yearned for a way to stay connected to the game.

She had played club softball with the San Diego Legacy, where her teammates included Kayla Wartner, a catcher headed to the University of Hawaii. Her coach had developed a relationship with Rainbow Wahine coach Bob Coolen and UH was one of a few programs to offer a scholarship for a team manager.

Coolen went through the process as he would with a recruit and offered the scholarship to Tjaden after meeting with her and her family.

While a glimmer of hope remained of perhaps playing again, Tjaden decided to “just accept it and contribute in different ways to the game.”

“I didn’t want to stop playing obviously but I really didn’t have any other choice and I think it takes a lot to be around the sport and watching it knowing you can’t play. I love it a lot, there was no question about whether I still wanted to be around the sport. I wanted to find a way to participate in softball.
I couldn’t just stop being part of something I was a part of my entire life.”

She’s embraced the role upon arriving on the Manoa campus, fulfilling many of the essential duties that go largely unnoticed outside the program.

“Nobody knows about her and they should know about her,” UH senior Leisha Li’ili’i said. “She does all the behind the scenes work and she’s very helpful and not too many people know that.

“She’s up in the press box or she’s getting the equipment and it’s always there it’s always ready. There’s never a time she’s failed us. We’re forever grateful for her.”

First to arrive at the field and often the last to leave, Tjaden runs through a list of responsibilities that grew to close to three pages in her four years, whether setting up equipment, dragging the field after practice or fixing the slats in the fences at Rainbow Wahine Softball Stadium.

“It’s been a comfort for me to have someone come in so appreciative of the fact that she got a scholarship to be around softball,” Coolen said.

“It’s great she’s been able to put the glove on and assist in whatever manner she’s capable of doing as a manger. She has so many tasks that you don’t think about that I used to do that I’ve passed on to the managers.”

While Tjaden’s diligence keeps things in order for the Wahine, her continued passion for the sport heightens the appreciation for the opportunity to play for those around her.

“When I found out when we were 16 that she couldn’t play any more, just seeing her go through the emotions and how hard it is for her not to be playing out there was an eye-opener to me,” Wartner said, “and made me realize how grateful I should be that I’ve been able to play this sport for the 14 years I’ve played it and I’ve learned so much from her.”

Tjaden, Wartner and fellow senior Jordan Burton will participate in UH’s spring commencement next weekend. Tjaden’s experience led her to major in interdisciplinary studies with an emphasis on health and plans to apply to a masters program in nursing when she returns to California.

“I want to be around kids, because I was in children’s hospital and I really want to help other kids who went through something like I did come out of it strong,” Tjaden said.

Tjaden will be honored along with Lii’li’i, Wartner and Burton after Saturday’s senior day game against UC Davis for what she’s given to the program. Coolen will accompany her during the ceremony and the coach — rarely at a loss for words — had to break off an interview with reporters when asked what she’d meant to the team.

Although she felt somewhat separated from the game at first, she said the Wahine players have “always been very welcoming and letting me know I’m still part of their team …  and I think that’s a big part of what this team is about.”

“The last four years have really been a ride,” she said. “I feel with the support of everyone including all the coaches and my parents it really developed me into a better person now.

“I was given this opportunity to maybe possibly be stronger in a way. Every opportunity that I get I want to do it with 100 percent. God put me in a situation and whatever situation I’m put in I want to just give it my all to help glorify him and do everything I can.”


  1. clyde May 8, 2015 1:24 pm

    Great story, Jason.
    She’s not just an unsung hero, but an inspirational one. Mahalo, Justine, for what you’ve done to help the softball program. And it’s not just “their” team; it’s yours, too.

  2. Pomai May 8, 2015 1:48 pm

    We have reminded her time an again that she is indeed a member of this team…. I was disappointed that she was not in the team pictures. She has been a great help to this team for the last four years.

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