Girls Soccer: Just call her “The Comback Kid”. Flintridge Sacred Heart’s Alyssa Conti was paralyzed from the hips down before making a triumphant return to the field.


Above: Alyssa Conti, right, shown here with teammate Natalie Zeenni at a recent photo shoot.

By Keith Lair, Staff Writer

Alyssa Conti is a typical teenager. She runs, jumps, gossips with her friends, sends and receives constant text messages and studies hard.

Oh yeah, she plays a little soccer, too. So well that the Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy captain has already accepted a scholarship to play at Johns Hopkins University next season.

Thirteen months ago, walking, running and playing soccer would have seemed so surreal. Conti was sitting in a Huntington Memorial Hospital bed, paralyzed from the hips down.

“I didn’t know if I was going to be playing,” she said. “Hopefully, I could run some day. Now being the captain is, oh my gosh, I did it.”

It all happened suddenly.

She was playing in a Sunday game for her Pasadena-based club soccer team. She had a fever of 104 degrees that night. The following day was a school holiday so the Pasadena resident spent most of the day resting, but her fever was still at 104. She went to the refrigerator to get some Gatorade when strange things began happening.

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“I couldn’t figure out how to open the fridge,” she recalled. “I couldn’t figure out how to put my arm out and get it to open. I thought I was doing it. I was just standing there.

“My mom said, ‘What are you doing? I said, `I’m opening the fridge.’ She was like, `Open it.’ But I couldn’t. In my mind, I was opening the fridge.”

Seconds later, she passed out on the kitchen floor. Her mother, Christine, a nurse at Huntington, rushed her to the emergency room.

Conti complained of chest pains. While getting prepared for X-rays, she went into a seizure. She could not move her legs and had no feeling from the hips down.

“We were freaking out,” recalled her father, Peter, a radiologist at USC. “Here is a girl who is going at it 110 percent on the soccer field and the next day she cannot walk.”

Peter Conti was in China when it happened.

Somehow, Conti had a viral infection, perhaps from the H1N1 virus, that led to Guillain-Barre Syndrome. It attacks the neurological motor skills, typically starting at the feet and working its way up the body, sometimes leading to death because the heart and lungs suddenly stop functioning. There is no known cause or cure for the syndrome, which affects no more than one or two people per 100,000.

“She was not sick, yet she could not walk,” Peter Conti said.

Alyssa spent two weeks at Huntington and then began using a wheelchair. She had a meeting with her doctor, who said she hoped to get the teenager to walk someday.

“The doctor said, `I’m going to make sure you can walk by January,’ ” she recalled. “I said, `That’s not good enough for me. I have a game.’ I was like I can’t do it. Soccer is a part of who I am. I have to get back on the field. My team is training without me. What do you mean? I have to get out there.”

Peter Conti said, “I about fell out of my chair when she told the doctor that.”

Sure enough, five weeks after being hospitalized, she was finding out how to get around on her two legs. Two weeks later, she was at the Tologs’ first game of the 2009-10 season.

“I have no idea,” she said of how she healed so quickly. “I wish I had an idea and I wish I could give it to others. That’s really sad, and sad for me. There are many people still in a wheelchair and can’t walk and here I am playing soccer. I’m very lucky.”

It was nearly a given that Conti would be studying medicine next year. She said she plans on becoming a doctor.

“We didn’t think it was as bad as it was,” Tologs co-coach Kathy Desmond said. “We thought that she’ll be fine, she’ll be back next week. It turns out it was really crazy how sick she was and determined to come back.

“I’m so happy for her getting into Johns Hopkins and being able to play soccer at the same time. Her two passions, medicine and soccer.”

Conti said she was angling toward medicine long before her sudden paralysis.

“I’m fascinated by it,” she said. “But after what happened, I want to do it even more. It’s a big mystery, but it’s part of who I am.”

Because it took so long to get back to full strength, Conti played her midfield position as much as she could last season, but not as much as she wanted. She said she did not feel like she was back to her full strength until late in the season.

And now, she’s a captain.

“She’s a great kid,” Desmond said. “There is no drama. She is always the same. She’s keeping our juniors in line. They are strong players and strong individuals. She has to keep them on the straight and narrow.”

And for Conti, that would mean guiding the Tologs to that elusive Mission League title and a CIF-Southern Section title.

“It makes it fun,” she said of the pressure of being favored this season. “We’re ranked high and we get to show up and play, and hopefully we get to finish that high.”

keith.lair@sgvn.com

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  • S

    Wow….that’s what you take away from this article?? That a DIII school doesn’t offer scholarships???

    I have worked with this young lady for 4 years and she is AMAZING! I had no idea how sick she was, and seeing her play this season and knowing that she will play in college (scholarship or not) is just incredible! I wish her the best of luck! I know she will do great things!!

  • Maranatha Parent

    Lets focus on the positive, she is alive! She is playing soccer and is going to an INCREDIBLE SCHOOL!

    John Hopkins and such academic schools often offer academic scholarships with the understanding that you will play soccer or a specific sport.

    That’s a huge accomplishment, San Diego State D-1 or JOHN HOPKINS? No question, way to go Captain!

  • Rebecca Fleming

    This young woman beat overwhelming odds, could have possibly lost her life, was unable to walk – yet alone run, yet alone play soccer and the take away from this is that she is a captain by default, Division III schools do not offer scholarships and her not being an all-league player during any of her years at FSHA makes her an “under the radar player”

    It never ceases to amaze the utter lack of sensitivity, taste and class that is shown by GROWN ADULTS. What is even more frightening is the fact that you have children.

    Don’t let it get you down Alyssa. You are already a winner in life by overcoming the odds. Soccer is icing on the cake. You will succeed at whatever you take on in life because you have the poise, wisdom and maturity to handle it.

    Best of luck to you and your team this season. Teach this as another life lesson. There will always be someone trying to pull you down to their level. Rise above it girlfriend and do your thing. We are proud of you.

  • Miguel Melendez

    I deleted a few comments. The purpose of this article was to highlight the remarkable comeback. For some of you to focus your attention on something else really baffles me and makes me question your agenda. Disappointing.

  • Poly Parent

    Just for the record, Johns Hopkins finished this past season 19 – 4 – 1 and advanced to the NCAA D-III National Tournament Elite 8 for the second consecutive season. Heady stuff.

    Congratulations Captain Conti.

  • wow

    Unless the comments were pornographic or overtly threatening in nature, it is disturbing that Melendez is arbitrarily deleting them. Very disturbing. So much for free speech in the year 2010.

  • A Friend

    Thank you Miguel for deleting the unfortunate comments made yesterday on this blog regarding this heartwarming article. It is sad that we have come to a place where an uplifting story about a fabulous young lady is met with negativity from some. Those that feel the need to voice that negativity must be either miserable in their own lives or its simple jealous. I know Alyssa and her family and how proud they are of all that she has overcome and all that she has and will accomplished. I am not sure why the use of the term scholarship automatically had the assumption that it was an athletic scholarship. In fact, her scholarship is academic. I, for one, have more admiration for Alyssa because of her hard work in the classroom to achieve an academic scholarship from a university with the standards that John Hopkins demands verses any athletic scholarship she could have had from a Division 1 school. Alyssa may not be on everyones radar but whats important is that she is on those that matter most, her family, her friends, her coaches, her teammates, and the staff at John Hopkins. Alyssa is an exceptional young woman that will go far because of who she is and what she stands for. She works hard, has a positive attitude, and has the character we so desperately need in our youth. Alyssa, continue to walk (and/or run if you want) in the direction of your dreams and know that you have many who stand behind you with love and support for all you do. I am proud that I will be there watching you as all those dreams are realized!

  • daz

    Miguel’s deleting of comments has nothing to do with free speech. You are free to start your own blog to insult high school kids, if you want. It is about responsibility and respect.

    Free speech is concerning the government not dictating what you can or cannot say or print. A private enterprise can delete what it deems as inappropriate.

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