Epilepsy Was Just Another Hurdle for These Athletes
Advocacy Seizures and stigma could have broken their dreams. Instead, they excelled at their chosen sports. Now, they’re giving back.
As former Olympic ice hockey champ Chanda Gunn says, “Epilepsy doesn’t mean you can’t have achievements — they just might look different from your original plan.”
Calling an audible
Gunn learned this when she was diagnosed with epilepsy at age 9. At the time, she swam competitively and dreamed of racing in the Olympics. But her seizures made swimming unsafe, so she was forced to quit. “It was devastating,” Gunn says. “But because that was taken away from me, I found hockey.”
Bullied by other kids because of her epilepsy, Gunn lacked self-confidence. But with hockey, she recalls, “I always excelled and fit in with my peers. I loved it.” Gunn learned to control her seizures with medication and a healthy lifestyle, and earned a hockey scholarship to college. In 2006 she fulfilled her Olympic ambitions as goalie for the bronze-winning U.S. women’s team.
The happy place
As a child with epilepsy, Mike Simmel felt isolated. “Basketball was my safe haven,” he sums. Simmel’s father gave him a basketball to improve his motor coordination. The solace of dribbling alone in his backyard, a place to “go into my own little world and pretend I was Larry Bird,” quickly became Simmel’s obsession. He practiced constantly, and then played competitively in high school and in college.
Like Gunn, he committed to the healthy habits that kept his seizures under control and went on to a 13-year basketball career with the Harlem Wizards. “Limits will not define you,” Simmel declares, borrowing the tagline from Bounce Out the Stigma, a basketball program he founded for kids with epilepsy, autism and other special needs. “You will define your limits.”
That’s an attitude shared by Jeff Klauk, who was a pro golfer when the onset of epilepsy changed his life. Klauk’s seizures disrupted his golf career at times, but he refused to give up.
“The key is to handle it the right way,” he says. “I wanted to be as positive as I can to help people as best I can.” To that end, he recently joined Perfect Golf Event, which leads charity golf tournaments for epilepsy and other causes. Klauk also volunteers for the Epilepsy Foundation’s Athletes vs. Epilepsy initiative, as do Gunn and Simmel.
“There are 3 million people with epilepsy in the U.S.,” Klauk points out, “but we only get $2 of federal funding per person. MS gets $100 per person, Parkinson’s gets $65.”
Klauk, Gunn and Simmel all believe that athletes are in a special position to raise awareness about epilepsy. “You can only go to so many support groups,” says Gunn. “But people who are passionate about sports — that’s a big, important audience. It’s an avenue to reach people who might not otherwise be reached.”