During a bumpy journey that saw her and her identical twin become medical trivia, a funny thing happened to Libertyville senior Kelly Keefe, who was born with a crumpled back but undeniable backbone.
If not physically, she emerged emotionally and spiritually stronger.
"She's a toughie," Claire Keefe says of her twin.
If you've seen Kelly run a cross country race, do yoga, or spring from her seat after Claire scores a basket, you'd guess there was never anything wrong with her physically.
"I'm much happier now," Kelly says with a smile that could light up a basketball scoreboard. "Before, I was very serious. I was very driven. But now I feel very flowery, and I really love my life. I feel like I always have something to smile about."
Kelly's disposition thrills the girl with whom she shares a bedroom.
"It's nice to come home to this," Claire says with a laugh. "She's so happy all the time."
Life hasn't always been flowery for Kelly, who's endured three major surgeries, including a life-changing spinal fusion three years ago. Her back now consists of titanium rods, plates, wire, mesh and artificial vertebrae. She was born with scoliosis and, to a lesser degree, spina bifida.
"What she really has doesn't even have a name for it," Amy Keefe says. Kelly and Claire are the youngest of four children, including two boys, of Amy and Kevin. "(Kelly) was this scrunched twin from being carried. Her vertebrae didn't develop. Her vertebrae in the bottom of the back, instead of being round, were pieces. Her body kind of fused those pieces together."
Kelly was also missing her left eyelid at birth, which eventually led to two surgeries. Coincidentally, she sees life with great clarity.
"She's a bundle of happiness, that's for sure," Amy says. "I think with all she's gone through, she's just so grateful."
Claire was born 30 seconds after Kelly -- with nary a scratch. Go figure.
"We're in a 'twin' study at the Mayo Clinic because of it," Kelly says. "When I was in fourth grade, I had to go to the Mayo Clinic because my back started really hurting. We brought (Claire) to make sure she didn't have anything wrong."
Scoreboard: Kelly 5, Claire 0.
"I have more than five birth defects, and she doesn't have any," Kelly says without a tinge of bitterness. "We're the only identical twins in American that's known to have that."
Which makes for an oxymoron: unique twins.
Fans of Lake County high school girls basketball know Claire Keefe. A varsity starter since her freshman year and two-time all-North Suburban Conference selection, the 6-foot forward scored her 1,000th career point this month. Kelly, whose troublesome back put an end to her promising basketball career after eighth grade, was in the stands at Deerfield.
At halftime, the proud-and-loud "older" sister grabbed the microphone and informed the crowd of Claire's milestone.
"It could have been me (scoring 1,000 points), but I'm happy it's her," Kelly says. "I'm her No. 1 fan. I love being (at games). I cried my eyes out when she scored the 1,000th point because I was so excited."
When they were younger, the Keefe girls provided double trouble for opponents on the basketball court. Like typical siblings, they engaged in one-on-one battles in the driveway at home. They played AAU together. They annoyed each other -- in a loving way. Claire had Kelly. Kelly had Claire.
"I had the drive (to the basket), and she had the three-point shot," says Claire, who's 2 inches taller than Kelly. "We were both very, very competitive. I think that's why we both got so good so fast when we were little."
One time, Claire boxed out Kelly. Hard.
"I'm pretty sure I dislocated her kneecap," Claire says.
"Seventh grade," Kelly recalls. "I couldn't play for two games."
In the spring of the twins' eighth-grade year, they were playing an AAU game at the University of Illinois when the inevitable happened. Just before a game was about to start, Kelly bent to tie her shoe, and her back slipped. Doctors had predicted that day would come.
"The scary thing was, they had always told us that (Kelly's back) was going to go, and we didn't know what would happen when it went," Amy says.
On the ride home, Amy told Kelly her basketball career had to stop. For good.
"I thought it in the back of my mind, but I kept denying it and denying it on the ride home," Kelly says. "Then I went to the next practice, and I was just done. I couldn't go past my toes. I had shooting pains down my legs. I had terrible, terrible back pain. I ended up staying for home the next three weeks. I didn't go to school."
In November of her freshman year, Kelly endured the spinal fusion, which Amy says was an eight-hour surgery that required three doctors.
Kelly was home-schooled for three months. Now pain-free, for maybe the first time in her life, Kelly says she "changed her life." She became a "ball of sunshine," her moms says. She quickly filled the void left by basketball.
In the fall of her sophomore year, Kelly went out for cross country. She ran again junior year and last fall served as a team captain for the Wildcats. Who wouldn't want that positive attitude on a team? Being a captain helped her become a leader, Kelly says.
While Claire kept excelling on the basketball court, Kelly, who admittedly can get loud, kept cheering her on. And when her sister needed a kick in the shorts, Kelly wasn't afraid to deliver it.
Says Amy: "You'll hear (Kelly) screaming from the stands, 'Get to work, Claire!' ... She knows the game. She loves it. It's how she stays in touch with it. It's almost like she's watching herself out there play."
And then Kelly found another way to quench her competitive, athletic side. She took up yoga, which she eventually wants to teach.
"I want to do it so people like me (with my condition) can do yoga as well," she says. "Before (starting yoga) I couldn't (bend) past my knees. Now I can put my palms to the ground with my legs straight."
She misses using those legs to fire jump shots. Basketball, after all, was her "world," her "everything," she says. Through Claire, however, Kelly stays connected to the game. Claire will play for Division-III DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., next year. And Miss Ball of Sunshine will be there with her. The twins plan to room together.
Don't think Claire doesn't appreciate her sister's support.
"It's nice," says Claire, who went to all of Kelly's cross country meets. "You get some enemies (in basketball) from other teams along the way. It's nice to have her in the stands fighting for me and vouching for me.
"When there's a bad call by the refs," Claire adds with a laugh, "my sister is up."
It's been a long time since Kelly was down.
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