by Paige Johnston
Her eyes were the type of brown that resembled the earth’s soil, rich in life after a beautiful spring rain. But there was something else in them. They held secrets. The same way soil holds a seed. Similar to the seed held so tight in place by the soil, her rich brown eyes held tightly on to her secrets.
Her hair was a crisp brown, much like the colour of freshly fallen leaves in the middle of fall. Long with a slight wave. Her beautiful locks swayed back and forth as she shyly looked around to see who was near.
It was 2:22 pm on a Thursday in the bustling Human Kinetics building at the University of Windsor. Students carried the extra weight of stress associated with finals preparation. She was different. She carried herself in a way that resembled strength, courage, and calmness. She stood still as unfamiliar faces scurried by, engulfed in their own worlds.
She waited for me warily, as I approached, her eyes lit up as she smiled and slowly walked my way. She quickly became more comfortable and confident as we spoke. She apologized for her English before even introducing herself.
“Please don’t make fun of me for my English,” she said, laughing. “I will try my best, but it’s far from perfect”.
We made our way to a quiet and windowless room upstairs in the Human Kinetics building. She sat down cautiously, not knowing what to expect.
“I am Yarden,” she stated in her Israeli accent as she reached out her hand to professionally introduce herself. “But you can call me Jordan if you want, that is my Canadian name.”
At 27, Yarden’s life experiences differ drastically from those of her peers. From basketball to friends, family, and her enrolment in the Israeli Army, Yarden slowly began to share her story. A life account that’s far from finished, but too inspirational not to share.
This is her story.
Yarden Gutt did not grow up like many of her friends. She moved throughout Israel from city to city with her parents Daniel and Peny, as they each lived out their basketball dreams. Yarden was the middle child. She had two older sisters and two younger brothers.
Yarden’s Father told her about the difficulties of living the basketball dream – one that many hope to achieve, but one that is not always made up of sunshine and roses.
“The basketball life is not easy,” Daniel told his daughter. “Moving from city to city almost every single year, having our children have to make new friends and interests. It’s a great life to live, but it’s not an easy life.”
The Gutt family’s basketball bloodline runs deep. Several extended family members also express their love for the sport through participation and involvement in a family run basketball business.
Yarden’s love for the game did not begin until her late teens. Prior to basketball becoming her obsession she involved herself in a hobby very different, one that may catch you by surprise after knowing her obsession for such a competitive sport.
“Can we skip this question?” said Yarden very quickly as she appeared to get red in the face. “Okay fine, I was, uh, um,” waiting more than five seconds between each word as if she was embarrassed by her former hobby.
Yarden finally blurted out, “I was a dancer,” as she shook her head.
At six, Yarden took her first dance class. Due to her experience shuffling from location to location, dancing was her comfort. It was not until 16 that her love for basketball began to flourish.
“Growing up I always watched my parents play and I always wanted to be part of the family, but the real story is after my grandfather passed,” Yarden explained as she held back a tear.
“I had a dream. We were on a basketball court. It was just him and I,” she said confidently, more than a decade later.
“I remember him passing me the ball, and he said you can do it. Just go play. It was the middle of the night. I woke up right away, ran right to my parents’ room and said to them, I want to play basketball. Sign me up for any team. I want to play,” she shared.
This dream was a memory that Yarden will forever hold on to as it was the seed that led to her most meaningful passion and what helped her grow into the woman she is today.
Although basketball seemed to come easy to the Gutt family, Yarden’s first experience on the court was not as positive as one might think. Although she quickly picked up the sport, as if she was always meant to play, her first interaction with a basketball was comical.
Shortly after Yarden’s vivid dream, her mother brought her to one of her basketball games. At this time, Peny was playing on a Division III team in the city where they lived. Being a typical competitive sports mom, Yarden’s mother immediately threw her into the game.
“All I remember is my mom and her teammates saying ‘all you have to do is run, catch the ball and put it into the basket.’ And so, I ran,” chuckled Yarden. “I remember running towards the net our team was scoring on and a teammate passed me the ball. The ball slipped between my hands, hit my head, and I fell.”
Yarden was in tenth grade at the time. While still focusing on academics, she capitalized on every spare second that she and her parents had together, and begged them to teach her more about basketball.
And so, they did.
From there, things took off. By 18 Yarden was representing her country, playing on Israel’s national basketball team. Every time Yarden picked up a ball she seemed to fall in love with the game a little more.
“I knew my goals. It was simple. I wanted to be the best,” Yarden said with confidence.
And so, she was. Yarden was not only apart the national team but also competed professionally in Israel’s Division I league.
At this time, Yarden’s life was going well. She fell in love with a sport that seemingly loved her back and she met new friends through basketball from all over the world. Though Yarden was appreciative of her past accomplishments, she knew a change was coming her way.
Similar to Canada, at age 18, Israeli youth are legally considered adults. In contrast to Canada, becoming an adult in Israel can be quite scary. Female citizens of the country are required to join the army for a minimum of two years, while Israeli males are required to serve for three.
Yarden was newly 18 and recognized that her time to fight for her country was quickly approaching. Due to her national basketball team status, Yarden was able to travel to and from her duties in the army daily. This allowed her to continue participating on the national team throughout her military service.
Yarden’s time in the army was similar to many of her military peers – from losing familiar faces due to war violence, to standing still for hours and protecting her base. Unlike many, Yarden was able to reflect back and appreciate what the experience had taught her.
“During your time in the army,” she says, chilled by the memories, “you swear at them, and hate these people, and think to yourself why do I need this in my life? But, when you are finally done, you realize that this experience actually prepared you for real life. Some things that happen to you, you feel like they’re not fair, but you have to deal with it. People will cry and think ‘poor me’. But after the army it makes you realize how strong of a person you can be.”
Yarden’s love for basketball guided her back to the game after her required military service concluded. Yarden was now 20 and ready to focus solely on basketball.
“The army was not a bad experience for me. If it was not for basketball I would have continued serving because I loved knowing I was protecting the people that were important to me” said Yarden as she slowly looked up from the ground. “But it was time for me to focus on basketball, and I was so excited”.
At that time, Yarden transferred to a Division II team in northern Israel with hopes of eventually being promoted to Division I.
Yarden led her team to a victory in the Division II championship. After an exciting accomplishment and a well-fought battle, Yarden transferred to a team in her hometown of Netanya.
After playing half a season in Netanya, she returned to northern Israel as previous personal troubles had been resolved. Yarden stayed for a year and a half and then moved to Petah Tikva, where she lived with her eldest sister and played for the local Division I team. Yarden played professionally for the following three years.
During Yarden’s first two years playing professionally in Petah Tikva, she studied athletic therapy at a local college and worked towards obtaining her diploma. At 24 Yarden began to think about her post-basketball career.
Although she allowed her mind to wander beyond her years playing the sport she grew to love, she was not ready to give it up. After studying athletic therapy, she discovered her passion for physiotherapy, a new goal she was determined to achieve.
Yarden’s former basketball coach, Yinon Rietti, had studied at the University of Windsor. During Rietti’s time here he was an assistant coach with the women’s basketball team. He helped Yarden get in contact with the head coach of the Lancers women’s basketball team at the time, Chantel Vallee. Yarden communicated with coach Vallee through email and within three short months, she landed in Windsor, ready for a new adventure.
“Adjusting to Windsor was difficult,” said Yarden in a soft tone. “Having to speak English every day. Basketball being so different. Being away from my family. Everything was so unfamiliar. It was the first time I had really ever doubted myself.”
As the weeks passed, Yarden became more familiar with the University of Windsor Human Kinetics program, the sport of basketball, and a new best friend.
During Yarden’s first semester at the University of Windsor, she was fortunate to reconnect with an old teammate from the Israeli national team, Orian Amsalem. Orian was finishing her studies at the University of Windsor during Yarden’s first semester. Their relationship helped Yarden get through the first few months as an international student-athlete. When December came, Orian headed back to Israel. This was a difficult time for Yarden but her play did not show it.
Thankful for teammates, teachers, and friends, the 5’9 guard was able to complete her first season as a Lancer, averaging 6.3 points per game, and 4.1 rebounds.
Now, Yarden is playing in her second season as a Lancer and has the privilege of living with Bob and Bonnie Fraser. The Fraser’s have welcomed Yarden into their home as her sponsor parents this season. This opportunity has given Yarden a sense of family during her time in Canada. The Fraser’s love Yarden’s presence in their home and enjoy being her Canadian family.
“Yarden is fun, caring, sharing and an absolute delight on any occasion” commented Bonnie. “We are so glad she is with us”.
Although Yarden is currently injured, she plans on returning shortly and is looking forward to her second season as a Lancer. With three years left in her program, she is unsure where the future will lead her, but is still chasing her dream of one day becoming a physiotherapist. One thing Yarden does know for sure is that she will continue to embrace new challenges during her time in Canada.
“One day I will go back to Israel, yes, but for now I am going to enjoy my time here,” said Yarden with confidence.
There is no need to rush through a varsity career when one loves their sport.
“Basketball is a game, yes, but it’s really not just a game” commented Yarden. “Basketball is my life, and I’m so thankful for what it has done for me”.
As Yarden gathered her things and placed her University of Windsor women’s basketball jacket onto her left shoulder, she smiled and thanked me for allowing her to tell her story.
I could see in her eyes that she was relieved to have told her story. The seed of secrets which had long inhabited them had blossomed into a beautiful flower. And while Yarden Gutt’s story as a Lancer athlete is still being written, we should all remember the tale of perseverance in which lead her here.
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