NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- When Selam Olson was in kindergarten, she came out to a Yale women's basketball game at John J. Lee Amphitheater with her Girl Scout troop. The Bulldogs made an impression on her.
"She had a blast," said Susan Olson, Selam's mom. "She kept saying then that she was going to be on the Yale women's 'ball-basket' team -- she always said it backward when she was little. We actually ended up going to most of the rest of the games that season. She really was enchanted as a little kid."
Fast-forward to this past fall, when Susan was at a presentation and learned about Team IMPACT, a nonprofit organization that pairs children with serious illnesses with college sports teams. The teams serve as a sort of support group for the child. Selam, now 11 years old, had been diagnosed at birth with an immune disorder. That made her a candidate to be "signed" by one of the college teams working with Team IMPACT.
And one of the teams looking for a player happened to be … the Yale women's basketball team.
Allison Guth, Yale's Joel E. Smilow, Class of 1954 Head Coach of Women's Basketball, places an emphasis on community service, and assistant coach Jacinda Dunbar oversees that aspect of the program. Dunbar had been in touch with Team IMPACT earlier in the year, and the Bulldogs were just waiting for the right opportunity to add a new player.
"We've always had community service as part of our forefront of our values as a program," said Guth. "We talk about social responsibility along with academic excellence and competitive excellence on the floor. I think when you talk about social responsibilities, we constantly are trying to use our platform and the talents we have to be connected in a different way and effect both our community in New Haven and beyond in a lot of different ways. Coach J did a great job."
And just like that, Selam's childhood dream came true. She joined the team in time for the season opener in November, then officially signed at a "Draft Day" ceremony in the media room at Lee Amphitheater Dec. 8. The members of the team gathered in the room that afternoon, and Selam walked in to a full house that also included some local media.
"It was really fun," Selam recalled. "When I came in I felt like a rock star because everyone started clapping for me."
After signing her "Bulldog Letter of Intent", Selam fielded questions from the audience -- her new teammates -- that ranged from her favorite subjects in school (science and math) to her favorite food (pizza). She then turned the tables, asking questions of all of her new teammates such as what their favorite colors are.
Susan Olson noted that joining the team helps overcome some of the challenges associated with her daughter's immune disorder.
"She doesn't do a lot of group activities, so being part of this is something she's looked forward to," said Susan. "She's memorized all their names and their hometowns and their numbers. She follows along on-line when they're away. She definitely feels like she's part of this."
Selam's big weekend continued on Dec. 9, when she joined the Bulldogs on the bench for the first time as the team won at Central Connecticut State.
Even for a relatively tall 11-year-old, the experience of being around 15 basketball players was a bit daunting.
"I feel really short because everyone else is really tall," Selam said. "It's really cool being around everyone else, especially since they're in college."
Selam plans on making most of the remaining home games, and will also be on hand for other team activities. Her mother sees all of her daughter's new teammates as potential role models.
"Absolutely, both in terms of being incredible students and athletes, but also people who think outside of themselves and who are very kind to do this," said Susan. "Just from looking at the webpage, they've been involved in a lot of things in the community. They're definitely the type of people I'd want my daughter around."
And Guth sees what her team gets in return.
"You talk about an 11-year-old kid who has a heart of gold, is unbelievably mature for her age, incredibly articulate, has a passion and a zest for life," said Guth. "I think that as much as Selam is getting out of this experience -- we talked after the game how pumped she was to sit on the bench -- it truly to me puts life in perspective. I think our players will get way more out of the experience just being around somebody who is passionate, has a love for life and a love for what she's getting to do being a part of our team. It makes you feel special."
Yale returns to action Thursday, hosting Indiana at 1:00 p.m.
Story by Sam Rubin '95 (firstname.lastname@example.org), Yale Sports Publicity