QZ93 Sports

Shealer defies odds to carve out successful career

In Berlin, District 5, Track and Field, WestPAC on May 20, 2009 at 7:00 am

Hayley Shealer’s accomplishments throughout her volleyball and track and field career are lengthy.

All-WestPAC first team volleyball this year. Third-place in District 5 as part of a 4×100-meter relay team. Second on the East Coast during a Junior Olympics javelin competition. Part of multiple WestPAC champion track teams and starter on a two-time WestPAC runner-up volleyball team.

But what most people don’t know about the Berlin Brothersvalley senior is that she also has a lengthy list of a more troublesome variety.

Atrial septal defect. Pulmonary valve stenosis. A malformed tricuspid valve. Widened aorta.

“When I was little, it was just a routine thing to go to the cardiologist,” said Shealer, taking a break from studying Advanced Biology. “As I got older, I didn’t have to go as much. It seemed like every time that I went they’d find something wrong. I didn’t understand when I was little, but at 13, I started to understand that it could affect my life if I did the wrong thing. It was really scary.”

Shealer was only a month old when her parents, Mike and Ruth, were told that their daughter had a pair of heart irregularities: Atrial septal defect , a hole between the two upper chambers of the heart, and pulmonary valve stenosis, which limits the amount of oxygen-depleted blood the heart can pump to the lungs.

“We knew she was probably going to be OK,” said Mike Shealer, the athletic director at Berlin. “But until she got to kindergarten we didn’t even know if she could even take gym class. We didn’t know what the limitations would be. She went into kindergarten with no guarantees with what she was going to be able to do.”

Meanwhile, Hayley and her parents got used to the drive to Pittsburgh, heading to the city for frequent checkups with cardiologists at Children’s Hospital. For Hayley, the early trips were more fun than anything else. But that began to change.

“When I was little it was pretty much like play time,” she said. “They had toys everywhere and they talked to my parents. They’d always send me to the playroom when they talked to my parents. When I got older, they would explain the things to me. And (the doctors) had to be realistic, so it made me worry a little more.”

Visits to Pittsburgh include a host of tests: EKGs to monitor the heartbeat, x-rays of the chest cavity to determine heart position and size, and ultrasounds to look into the heart and check the defects.

Hayley Shealer prepares to launch the javelin during a competition/SUBMITTED PHOTO

Hayley Shealer prepares to launch the javelin during a competition/SUBMITTED PHOTO

All the while, Hayley and her parents watched and waited, unsure of what was ahead as they started to test the athletic waters. After all, the Shealers are a sports family. Keeping away from sports would have been difficult. But with Hayley’s health, the family had to take baby steps.

“Sports have been in our family,” said Mike Shealer, who has coached football, track and wrestling around the area for years. “She went to track practice with me as a 1-year-old. She grew up around teams. She didn’t know she had anything wrong. She didn’t know how bad it was and she never really felt sorry for herself. We just didn’t know if physically if she would be able to do it.”

Hayley started playing volleyball in fourth grade and added track in fifth grade. It was finally a chance to see what she could do, and how far her body would let her go.

As the years progressed, Hayley kept plugging away at her sports. Her body was holding up, and there didn’t seem to be any problems.

But the Shealers received more troubling news as Hayley approached 12. In addition to the earlier diagnosis, doctors determined that she had a bicuspid aortic valve, rather than the appropriate tricuspid, and a widened aorta. Each problem had likely been there since birth, but could only be determined for sure as Hayley got older.

As usual, Hayley would have to watch herself. But this time, she had a powerful friend on her side. After years of hearing about the challenges she could face as an athlete, Hayley’s doctor gave her the go-ahead to keep competing, but with some limitations.

“I owe an awful lot to the older gentleman at Children’s,” said Mike Shealer. “He was so positive. He loves sports and liked Hayley. He was the head of the department and his word was rule. At 11 or 12, he talked to her and told her that you have to tell someone if you can’t keep up, you’ve got to stop. And there were limitations into the teen years. She couldn’t throw shot or discus because of the effort on the aorta. I coached the javelin and asked him about that. He said it shouldn’t be a problem.

“She couldn’t do events over 200 meters. In gym, couldn’t push herself in the mile. She went at her own pace and that was the deal.”

She followed in her father’s footsteps and took up the javelin, experiencing success on a major stage at the tender age of 13.

“That was the first year that I did the USA Track and Field,” Hayley said. “I just went into the first meet and I ended up winning the first meet by 60 feet. Then I went to the next one, the East Coast national championship. I ended up throwing one of my best distances of the year and finished second. I didn’t understand what it meant at the time but now I look back on it and think, ‘Wow, how did that happen?’ ”

When she wasn’t competing, Hayley was coaching, taking time with her father to help direct the javelin throwers in Berlin’s program. In fact, as an eighth grader, she’d already thrown the javelin farther than any of the high school athletes.

She got her chance to shine as a freshman, excelling in the triple jump for the Mountaineers. But more trouble, this time in her knee, knocked out a promising sophomore campaign. The lingering knee injury had finally gotten too painful, so Hayley had surgery. The physical therapy that followed turned out to provide her quite a perspective.

“I decided I wanted to (be a physical therapist) when I had knee surgery sophomore year,” said Hayley, who holds a 3.9 GPA and is ranked among the top 15 in her class. “I got interested in what they did and how they made my knee better. I thought that was something that I wanted to do later, to work with athletes.”

She will enter Slippery Rock in the fall, where she plans to major in exercise science for the first three years, then enter the physical therapy program. Already an honors student when she begins her collegiate studies, she can finish the entire program in six years.

Since the knee surgery, she has found continued success away from the triple jump pit and in events like the long jump and javelin. She was part of the 4×100-meter relay team that finished third in District 5 her junior year.

And through it all, many of her friends and teammates had no idea the challenges she faced.

“My closest friends knew about it,” Hayley said. “But there are plenty of people that don’t know there’s anything wrong with me. My friends never treated me any differently and a lot of other people didn’t know about it anyway.”

Hayley says she’s not sure what the future holds for her athletically, though she’d like to continue throwing the javelin for The Rock. If that doesn’t work out, though, she says intramural volleyball will do the trick.

In the meantime, she’ll enjoy the memories of a career that may have seemed impossible just a few short years ago.

“It’s been amazing,” Mike Shealer said. “She’s had good coaches, people like Lisa James in volleyball and then Corey Will. They never pushed the whole training stuff and let her be what she was.

“From the very beginning, (the concern) was there, but she never realized her limitations.”

-MATT JORDAN
matt@qz93sports.com

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