Aldrich heading to U.S. Paralympics for third time

2012-08-15T13:31:00Z Aldrich heading to U.S. Paralympics for third timeBy Stacy Wemhoff Sun staff writer Columbus Telegram
August 15, 2012 1:31 pm  • 

Allison Aldrich has traveled the world playing volleyball for her country.

Athens in 2004. Beijing in 2008.

Now, she's getting ready for London 2012.

As she talks about her training, her teammates and her anticipation, the 24-year-old removes her prosthetic leg and talks about the cancer that made it all possible.

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In 1995, Allison was like any other 7-year-old, except for the lump that rubbed on the outside of her soccer shoe.

She told her parents, Marv and Peg, about it and in August of that year, the cyst was removed and tested.

Those tests came back positive for cancer and Allison was diagnosed with clear cell sarcoma.

"It's an adult cancer that one in a million kids get," she said.

There were several treatment options, but Allison chose to have the leg amputated below the knee because it was the best option for her to remain active and eliminate the cancer.

She did not let the amputation slow her down - playing golf, volleyball, basketball and soccer at Schuyler Central High School.

In 2004, she was featured in an Omaha World-Herald article that caught the attention of a member of the men's sitting volleyball Paralympic team who contacted her.

She was initially hesitant to learn about the sport, but it wasn't long before the then-16-year-old was named the youngest member of the 2004 sitting volleyball Paralympic team.

"It was the first time I felt in my sports career that I was judged on my ability and not on my disability," Allison said.

The games in Athens were the first time there was a women's sitting volleyball event.

The team came home from the games with the bronze.

"It was very unexpected," she said. "I started after just six months and I was the top setter in the world."

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Allison came home from Athens feeling a little overwhelmed. She was just 16 and had just represented her country and won a Paralympic medal. In 2006, she graduated from Schuyler Central High School and began college at Nebraska Wesleyan University.

Two years later, Allison was named again to the Paralympic sitting volleyball team and traveled to Beijing.

They beat rival Holland in the semifinals and advanced to the gold-medal match against China.

The team lost and came away with a silver medal.

"We didn't play our game," she said. "We looked scared. We looked nervous."

While it was a disappointing loss, Allison said it was an honor to win a medal.

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Another four years have gone by and Allison will be training in Amsterdam before going on to London for this year's Paralympics.

Aldrich is one of the few people on the 2012 team who has a job outside of training and preparing for the games.

She teaches health and physical education for students in grades 5-12 at Wilbur-Clatonia. She is also the head volleyball coach and assistant junior high girls basketball coach at the school.

She said the school has been very supportive of her efforts.

Her students, like many other people she meets, are curious and fascinated by her leg and her story.

"My students want me to take my leg off every day," she said.

There was a time when the stares really bothered Peg who was simply trying to protect her child.

Today, Peg said she has come to realize that people are mostly just curious and Allison is OK with that.

"She makes them comfortable," Peg said.

Allison said she doesn't mind people asking questions and she never felt sorry for herself.

"I never wanted to let it bother me," she said.

In fact, her leg - which looks amazingly real, down to the painted acrylic toenails - has been used as a mock trophy and cup holder.

Allison said people have asked her if she ever wishes she had her leg back.

She doesn't hesitate when she responds with a no and considers everything her disability has afforded her.

"Her disadvantages have been advantageous in many ways," Peg said.

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Allison spent most of her summer at the University of Central Oklahoma training for the 2012 Paralympics.

Her position has changed from setter to middle hitter.

"That's the hardest position in sitting volleyball," she said.

The game is similar to the volleyball that many people know, except that the court is smaller, the net is lower and the players sit.

"Our hands are our feet in sitting volleyball," Allison said. "We look like little hermit crabs on the ground and we just move as fast as we can."

Allison said it is frustrating that most people do not know about the Paralympic Games for disabled athletes.

According to the International Paralympic Committee, the Paralympic Games are the second largest sporting event in the world. Nearly four thousand athletes participated at the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games.

Allison has found that the games often get confused with the Special Olympics, which are for people with cognitive disabilities.

Peg said she has noticed more commercials on television featuring Paralympic athletes.

"People are starting to see it a little more," she said.

Allison said the U.S. is one of the few countries that does not televise the Paralympics and that the games are much more popular in Europe. While in Beijing, people asked her to take photos with their children.

"My one goal is to get our message, our sports out there," she said.

She is hoping Team USA will help accomplish that. The women's sitting volleyball team will take on China in their first game Aug. 31.

Allison said the team worked hard to prepare for the game.

"We seem like a different team," she said.

However, that doesn't mean they are overconfident.

"It's very fast-paced," she said. "We really have no margin for error."

Allison said while she has the bronze and silver medals, there is still one more she needs.

"This time we're hoping for a gold medal," she said.

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