Inspired by Olympian Shannon Boxx

9 Aug

The following is in an entry by Monica Gonzalez:

“Going into the gold medal match of the 2012 London Olympic Games, the U.S. women’s national soccer team is more popular than ever. Full of young ladies who are fascinating the public, others simply have fascinating stories to tell. Shannon Boxx has not seen action since the opening game of these Olympics due to a hamstring injury she suffered in the 17th minute against France, but she may still be called upon in today’s gold medal game against Japan, and her story is one little known to the mainstream but well worth repeating given the importance of this day and the importance of Shannon Boxx to the women’s national team. Back in April at halftime of a 1-1 draw versus Japan, ESPN aired an interview in which Shannon shared for the first time on-air about a disease she has been coping with for 10 years.

“Boxxy” and I were college teammates at Notre Dame, but her revelation caught me by surprise.  When I pieced this in with what I already knew of her career I realized that the two-time gold medalist epitomizes attributes common to the greatest of Olympic stories: mental fortitude, persistence, and courage. More importantly, she is a hero that blazed a new trail for those who didn’t think sport was an option given their disease.

In 2002, at just 24 years old, Shannon was experiencing unusual amounts of fatigue and went to the doctor thinking it may be mono.  She was diagnosed with Sjögren’s syndrome, a chronic autoimmune disease in which a person’s white blood cells attack their moisture-producing glands.  Even upon figuring out what was wrong with her and adjusting her diet and exercise regimen to protect the load on her joints, life threw her yet another curve ball.  She had been on the WUSA’s San Diego Spirit and was traded to the New York Power. Her confidence was busted because she spent the final stretch of the 2002 season on the bench after having been a regular starter all year.

This was a critical juncture, a point where undoubtedly her mind, body and soul were out of sync.  Shannon made a couple of decisions that would shape the rest of her career.  One, she kept her disease private.  She didn’t want anyone to use it as an excuse, herself included.  Second, she decided to push herself harder than ever before. If her body was struggling, she would train it to get stronger and last longer. Her mind and spirit took control of her body, not the other way around.  In the off-season, Shannon hired two personal trainers, Jim Herkimer and Craig Bennett. She told them “I will never say no to anything you tell me to do.  And I will never quit.”

I remember her next season very well.  She was one of the best players in the league (WUSA). I remember seeing her my rookie season with the Boston Breakers when we played each other. I said, “Foxy Boxxy!!!”  And I meant it.  Since I had last seen her in college, she had literally transformed her body—she was so lean and completely ripped.  That season, Boxx was the center-mid that tore teams up…you couldn’t get by her and with the ball she could beat you just as easily dribbling, passing or shooting. It was no surprise when she got called up to the U.S. Women’s National Team.  She’s been a starter ever since.

In the ensuing years, Shannon saw several doctors to find one that could help her deal with Sjogren’s and ensure the disease wasn’t progressing.  In 2007 she saw a rheumatologist who found her blood work to be abnormal and believed she had something more than just Sjogren’s.  It took a little trial and error to finally figure out she had Lupus. Lupus is like a self-allergy, the antibodies that are supposed to keep you disease-free instead attack your healthy tissues. It causes fatigue, joint pain, muscle aches, and at a progressed state can result in the destruction of vital organs. Nine out of ten people who develop Lupus are women. There is no cure.

I spoke to Shannon after her interview came out on ESPN in April. I wanted to know why she didn’t tell her teammates all these years. Wouldn’t she want their support?  She said she had all the support she needed with her family and close friends.  She reiterated that if everyone knew, then she would have an excuse to not perform to everyone else’s level.  She did share with head coach Pia Sundhage and the national team staff. They were incredibly supportive and told her to sit out whenever necessary. Despite the fatigue and awful joint aches, Shannon had never missed one single training session going into these Olympics.

After the ESPN feature came out in April, Shannon said the best feedback she received was from others with Lupus who thanked her for giving them the courage and motivation to exercise and live an active lifestyle despite the disease.

I will share with you something that Shannon may not like. My sophomore year at Notre Dame (1998) Boxxy was a senior and our team captain. She came in from summer break out of shape and throughout the season regularly came in toward the back in fitness.  Even though she played every single game of her collegiate career, she wasn’t even selected to the All-Conference team her senior year.  Flash forward two years, she finds out she’s sick. Because of her mindset and courage, Shannon took what most would consider a weakness that could possibly end her career and used it as a catapult to become stronger than ever. How do I know that?  Flash forward two more years and she’s an Olympic Gold Medalist. One year after that, she was third in voting for 2005 FIFA World Player of the Year.

Shannon has never been a spotlight kind of person. Even with the pressure to get a Twitter account after the 2011 World Cup hype, she refrained. It wasn’t until she became involved with the Lupus Foundation that she decided a Twitter account could do some good. The Lupus Foundation of America works to improve the quality of life for those affected by lupus through research, education and advocacy.  Worldwide, Lupus is more common than leukemia or muscular sclerosis, yet so many are unfamiliar.

In November, Shannon stood up in front of a roomful of young girls and their families to share her story for the first time.  It’s on YouTube and worth watching.  At various points her voice trembles as though she is fighting off tears.  I think as Shannon spoke out loud about her struggles and triumphs during the last ten years, she heard her own story and realized, maybe for the first time, how remarkable it really is.”

Shannon’s Twitter: @ShannonBoxx7

The Gonzo girls watched the Boxx video and here’s their reaction:

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