Teen fights his way back to health for London games
Alex Hendricks is living his dream of playing high-level soccer.
The 16-year-old Worthington Kilbourne High School junior left Aug. 22 for London, where he will compete in the 2012 Paralympic Games as a member of the U.S. Paralympic Soccer Team.
Held every four years, immediately following the Olympic Games, the Paralympics feature more than 4,000 athletes from around the world.
The two events are similar, complete with opening and closing ceremonies and the 227 U.S. athletes in Ralph Lauren jackets.
Alex is the youngest member of the soccer team, which will compete with seven other teams that qualified for the games. He has been at the Olympic training center in Chula Vista, Calif., for most of the summer and believes his teammates are up for the challenge.
They open with a match against the team from Ukraine on Sept. 1. The games run through Sept. 9.
"I'm excited, and so is the team," Alex said before he left. "We've been training all summer, and I think we're ready to play."
Alex is lanky and fit and seems to be the typical picture of a high school athlete. He does, in fact, play on the Kilbourne JV A-team, and hopes to make varsity as a senior.
Three years ago, the young soccer player lay in a hospital bed -- for a time in a vegetative state -- after suffering a traumatic brain injury and two strokes during what was supposed to be a simple procedure.
He had suffered a concussion during a club soccer game and went to the hospital for a CT scan. Incidental to the concussion, doctors found a large tumor in his brain.
Alex's parents, Michael and Karyn Hendricks, were supposed to take him home following a biopsy. Instead, he spent three months at Nationwide Children's Hospital's neurosurgery and rehab units, relearning the skills of basic living.
During those months, the Worthington community pulled together to support the Hendricks family. Community members not only kept the family fed and made cards for Alex, but they also raised money to help pay for his therapy through a drive called Hoops for Hendricks.
"This is the result of the community helping Alex get better," his mother said. "This is the payoff."
It also is the result of Alex's will and hard work and a dream that he never let die.
"I always dreamed of playing high-level soccer," he said. "After the surgery, I thought I would never play again."
First, he had to learn to walk. He came home from the hospital still assisted by a walker.
Then he had to learn to run and then to kick a ball. Baby steps, he said.
His mother tried to steer him into other sports, but Alex wanted no part of them.
"He was determined to play soccer," she said.
Continual hard work with physical therapists has helped him regain both physically and mentally. His left side still is weak, and he can't move the lower portion of his left foot.
Intellectually, he has graduated from needing an Individualized Education Plan at school, moving on to a higher level of functioning this year. He again is planning to attend college.
He has reached levels of functioning that go beyond what was predicted three years ago.
"We keep seeing improvement," his mother said. "We don't know why it is working, but it's working."
The Worthington schools have been very helpful, she said. Hendricks, a student at Perry Middle School at the time of the surgery, returned there with the help of special-education services. He also has received physical and occupational therapy through the schools.
Besides ongoing physical therapy, Alex works out with his high school team. Since joining the Paralympic team in November 2011, he has gone to California one week a month to train for competition.
The team also has traveled abroad twice to play in tournaments and to qualify for the games.
Only eight teams qualify for the Paralympic games. The U.S. team did not qualify four years ago.
Twelve players make up a team, and games are played seven on a side on a smaller field with smaller goals than regulation soccer.
Alex is one of two goalies.
Players must be ambulatory and have either cerebral palsy, a traumatic brain injury or have suffered a stroke. Some of the athletes are injured veterans. The average age on the soccer team is 24.
The Hendrickses hope the Worthington community becomes more aware of the Paralympics through Alex's experience. The couple will be at the games and hope people back home follow them and gain knowledge and inspiration.
"It is unbelievable what these athletes can do with their disabilities," Karyn Hendricks said.