Emerging from the darkness
Freese-Vilien returns to the lineup after overcoming mysterious sickness
Why is it dark? I’m looking at the lights and I can’t see anything. That’s twice today.
Why is this happening? What is wrong with me?
The doctors don’t have any answers. The coaches and the athletic trainers, no answers.
I, don’t have any answers.
I’m alone. Who can I call? Not the team. They’re half a country away. My family? They’re half a world away. My girlfriend. Yes, that’s it.
“Sydney, I need you to get over here right away.”
My door. The door is locked. How will Sydney get in my room? I need to open the door. Time to stand. I feel like I’m going to pass out. My legs are shaking. I’ve got to fight through this.
Emil Freese-Vilien collapsed on the floor of his dorm room on Monday, Nov. 15.
To say that things have been hard on the Valparaiso big man since he arrived on campus in the fall of 2019 would be an understatement.
Freese-Vilien arrived from Copenhagen, Denmark the same day that Ben Krikke came to the United States from Canada. The two got to Chicago within an hour of each other and the roommates have been close ever since.
Once marked to be a star badminton player, Freese-Vilien took to basketball slowly, and then with lightning speed, earning a scholarship offer from Valparaiso coach Matt Lottich after playing in a professional league in Denmark. Not bad for a guy who picked up a basketball for the first time at 14. That first year at Valpo, Krikke showed a ton of promise and Freese-Vilien progressed slowly. He didn’t score a point for the final three months of the season and barely got off the bench.
“My college experience so far has been very different compared to a guy like Ben,” Freese-Vilien said. “I haven’t played a whole lot. I was injured all of last year and then I had all of the stuff that happened this year.”
All of the stuff.
First there was the ankle. Freese-Vilien dislocated his ankle last season and missed all but two games. Things were going to be different for Freese-Vilien this year. His body was in good shape and he had two years under his belt in the United States, even if much of that time was thrown into upheaval due to COVID-19.
“I hadn’t really gotten super accustomed to college life yet when COVID hit,” Freese-Vilien said. “I don’t think I knew how much was taken away from me. I’ve learned now that school is a lot more fun in person. Last year was tough. I was injured and I couldn’t travel with the team (because of COVID restrictions). I definitely felt distant. The only thing is people back home were going through (COVID) too, so it made me feel closer to home in a strange way.”
Good thing he had Martens. It was Krikke who had originally introduced the two after meeting Martens in a general education class when all three were freshmen. Freese-Vilien and Martens started seeing each other late in the basketball season and things progressed quickly due to a force nobody saw coming.
“We were dating for a month when the whole world shut down,” Freese-Vilien said. “I couldn’t go home, so I ended up living at Sydney’s house with her mom and brother for three months. Dating for one month and now living with the family. We got really close at the beginning. She’s been great.”
Freese-Vilien navigated through COVID restrictions to get home and eventually return to Valparaiso’s campus, which took more than a fair share of work with customs. The dislocated ankle left him feeling empty when it came to basketball, but all that was going to be in the rearview mirror heading into the 2021-22 season. He was in the best shape of his life and life on the court was slowing down. He was ready to deliver on the potential that Lottich saw in him two years earlier. Then he rolled the ankle again.
“I’ll tell you this,” Lottich said. “That young man has never sulked. He’s never held his head. He’s tried in every way possible to be engaged and he has been helpful. He’s communicated well and been a good teammate. He has represented our program and represented our institution really well and we’re proud of him for that.”
Freese-Vilien worked through the ankle injury and was determined to not let his body betray him again. He rehabbed the injury and strengthened the rest of his body as well as his mind. When the time came, he was going to be ready to finally deliver a breakout season.
Freese-Vilien started feeling sick around Halloween. It felt like nothing more than a fever. Normally it wouldn’t be alarming, but in the world of COVID, every cough can send a chill down the spine.
“I got sick and I was out for a few days,” Freese-Vilien said. “I thought it was the flu. I got tested for the flu. No. I got tested for COVID. No. I got tested for everything and we didn’t know what it was. I had a fever for a few days and then it passed. I thought I was doing better.”
Freese-Vilien was sluggish for the first few days after returning to practice, but he felt it was just getting his sea legs back under him. He started taking medicine to get him through the days. Grueling engineering classes followed by even tougher basketball practices can take a toll physically and mentally. He never got better.
The season had started and after missing an exhibition loss to Ashland, Freese-Vilien took the court for a few minutes against Flagler. He played five minutes in the season opener against Toledo, scoring four points and committing four fouls. The following game was a 74-70 overtime loss to UIC at the Athletics-Recreation Center.
The box score shows that Freese-Vilien played in four minutes and that on his second stint in the game, he checked in at the 8:51 mark of the second half. The teams went up and down the court three times before a timeout stopped action 61 seconds later. Play resumed and Freese-Vilien grabbed a rebound off a UIC possession that lasted 20 seconds. Valpo missed a jumper 18 seconds later and the players ran down the court again. UIC worked the ball around for 20 seconds before Filip Skobalj connected on a 3-pointer with 6:48 remaining. The Beacons ran a play on the next possession that resulted in Freese-Vilien getting an assist off a basket by Kevion Taylor. UIC turned the ball over 13 seconds later and Freese-Vilien looked to the bench. He couldn’t do it.
“I knew that if I played another possession, my legs would stop working,” Freese-Vilien said. “I took myself out of the game.”
When Freese-Vilien came to the sidelines, Lottich knew it was serious.
“There was this ongoing illness,” Lottich said. “Some days felt better than others. He kept getting COVID tested and we knew that it wasn’t COVID. He kept trying to push through it. The UIC game. He comes up to me and says if he has to go up and down the court one more time he was going to have to sit down on the court. We pulled him. Then we found out he passed out in his dorm.”
The 6-foot-10, 255-pound big man collapsed on the floor of his dorm room on Monday, Nov. 15. It was two days after the UIC game and several hours after his teammates and coaches departed on a plane for Stanford.
“I had an episode earlier in the day when I stood up and my vision got a little dark,” Freese-Vilien said. “I thought it was a bit normal, just like standing up quickly. My legs shook a little, but I was fine after that. I went to a dermatologist appointment because that was the next place to go to see if they could figure anything out.”
Freese-Vilien returned to his dorm room after the appointment and was sitting in his chair when he felt his vision starting to fade again. He quickly called Martens and then went to unlock his door when he hit the ground. He wasn’t out for long and he came to by the time Martens arrived. They went to the emergency room and finally, Freese-Vilien got some answers.
“It was Lyme disease,” Freese-Vilien said. “It got to my heart. There was a block and my heart would skip beats. At that moment, it skipped a lot of beats in a row. It wasn’t a heart attack, but it was heart failure.”
On his life, Freese-Vilien can’t figure out how he got it. In Denmark, it’s not called Lyme disease, but the more scientific term of Borrelia. It was a disease that Freese-Vilien had heard of, once he understood what the doctors were telling him.
“It’s more of a concern here in the midwest than it is back home,” Freese-Vilien said. “I had actually thought of it early on when I wasn’t feeling well, but it was so unlikely. I would check for ticks all the time when I was a kid, but not really anymore. I don’t go playing outside a whole lot and I never found a tick on me. It must have bitten me and fallen off at some point. I don’t know.”
Freese-Vilien called his family in Denmark and they immediately booked flights to come to Valparaiso. His parents were set to come, but his father tested positive for COVID the same day Freese-Vilien went into the hospital. His mother and stepmother made the trip and the two women, coupled with Martens, rarely left Freese-Vilien’s side.
“My stepmom was here for a week to help me get back to living again and my mom stayed a bit longer to help me get back in with school stuff,” Freese-Vilien said. “My girlfriend was there for me emotionally and practically. I don’t understand a lot about the American health care system. I needed some help with everything and I had to sign all this stuff. At home we have universal health care where you just swipe a card to prove you’re a citizen and it’s taken care of. There was a lot of stuff I had to figure out and she was there for all of it.”
Freese-Vilien was sent home from the hospital with a heart monitor and he was allowed to do nothing but take short walks around campus. He continued to build up strength and the doctors eventually gave him a new monitor, and the chance to start progressively working out. Two weeks ago he turned in that monitor and received clearance to begin basketball workouts.
It’s quite a journey for someone who wondered if he’d ever be getting off his dorm room floor.
“Part of me had thoughts (of death) when I passed out,” Freese-Vilien said. “My physical response was that maybe I could pass away from this. When the doctors didn’t know what it was immediately, I thought it might be a heart attack and that would be it. There were moments when I was really scared that something bad could happen.”
Now, three months and one day from the moment he passed out, Freese-Vilien will return to the active lineup when Valparaiso takes on Loyola at the ARC on Feb. 16.
“It’s been a tough road back,” Lottich said. “As a coach, you don’t ever want to push anyone. When there’s an issue with the heart, you want to be extremely cautious. I’m more just excited for him. I’m excited for our guys who love being around him. It’s been hard to see him go through this. He’s not in his home country. The reason he came here was to get an education and to play basketball and half of that has been taken away. Getting him back on the court, he brings a sense of energy and it brings a smile to your face. There’s so much that goes into a season and there are little moments in there that remind you why you do things. Seeing him back on the court is one of those moments.”
Freese-Vilien can’t wait for Wednesday night. There’s no guarantee that he’ll take the court. If he does get his number called, he doesn’t want anything special. Just to be one of the guys.
“There’s definitely that itch of getting out there,” Freese-Vilien said. “I don’t necessarily expect to play in any games after having been out the whole season, but I do think I can help the team in some sense. It’s going to be great. It’s been a long wait. I’m going to be nervous and definitely excited. I think a little that I’m proud of myself. Proud of myself for getting through it and getting back on top again.”
(Photos provided by Valpo Athletics)