Ona McConnell ’13 grasped two fingers on her left hand with her right fist, struggling to release her grip. While trying to relax the muscles in her hands, McConnell explained that this occurs every time that she grasps her field hockey stick — several times a day, six days a week as a member of the varsity women’s team. “This is myotonia,” she explained.
McConnell’s “passion” for field hockey began at the age of 9, and she eventually drew enough attention as a goalkeeper to be recruited for the varsity team at Yale.
During her senior year of high school, however, she noticed a decline in the quality of her game: she began missing balls that she normally would have saved. Toward the middle of her freshman year at Yale, she experienced difficulty relaxing her grip. A doctor’s visit concluded with a diagnosis of myotonic dystrophy, the most common form of muscular dystrophy.
The first question she asked her doctor was, “Can I still play field hockey?”
She later asked doctors if playing sports would make her condition worse, and they told her that the evidence was inconclusive. McConnell told them, “If you can’t prove it, I’m going to continue.”
While McConnell continued playing, she said her skills in goal have declined and her opportunity to earn playing time is low. She said that the symptoms of her disease persist, including the myotonia, which causes both her muscles to cramp and also constant tiredness. No cure for myotonic dystrophy exists, and the medicines that she takes to combat some of her symptoms add cognitive slowness to her other symptoms.
“It was really annoying to not be able to do what I could [in goal],” she said. “I might have dropped out of Yale if it wasn’t for my team.”
Soon after the diagnosis, McConnell met with head coach Pam Stuper, and the two brainstormed a way to raise awareness and money to combat the disease. Their conversation resulted in the Get a Grip campaign, which began McConnell’s sophomore year. The annual campaign kicked off last weekend with the Get a Grip game against Quinnipiac on Saturday.
Maddy Sharp ’13, the captain and forward on the field hockey team, said the game is very meaningful for the team. She added that each year, the team sells T-shirts and wristbands on campus during the week leading up to the game, and the game draws one of the largest crowds of the season. Saturday’s come-from-behind 3–2 victory was no exception.
In addition to the game, which raises awareness about myotonic dystrophy, Sharp said the team runs a season-long Goal-a-Thon, in which people pledge to donate a certain amount of money for each goal the team scores. McConnell said that over the past two years, the campaign has raised $90,000, all of which supports research to find a cure for myotonic dystrophy.
In the offseason, Sharp said, the team still cares strongly for the campaign, but it does not necessarily remain at the forefront of team members’ minds because McConnell never complains about having the disease. Sharp said her work ethic is just as strong as any of the other players, and McConnell is a source of inspiration for the team.
Stuper added, “Despite what other student-athletes have that day — a tough class, a tough exam … [Ona’s playing] just can’t help [but] to inspire you to dig a little deeper.”
McConnell said she remains active in the fight against myotonic dystrophy throughout the year through her involvement as a board member for the Myotonic Dystrophy Foundation. The nonprofit organization organizes conferences, raises money, and garners awareness about the disease in the hope of finding a cure.