SUNDAY SHOWCASE: ‘Still batting, Team Alena Strong!’ Softball, Gaylord Gauntlet fuel recovery for Wallingford teen

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WALLINGFORD — Almost a year ago to the day, Wallingford teenager Alena D'Antonio had surgery to remove a tumor from the right side of her brain.

It was love from family and friends, along with therapy at Gaylord Special Care, that helped her heal and brought her through the tough times.

So did softball.

Two months after her June 2021 surgery, D’Antonio she was back on the field, playing slow-pitch softball in the Wallingford Girls Softball League on a team coached by her dad, Dom.

This spring, she was back to almost full strength and helped her squad make a strong postseason run.

In the season finale on Thursday evening at the Gaylord softball fields, D’Antonio went 3-for-4 with a triple and a double. In the prior game, she was 4-for-5.

It was appropriate she was playing across the street from Gaylord Specialty Care. That’s where she received physical and occupational therapy, and her therapists used her love for softball and her desire to get back on the field during her sessions.

D’Antonio was at Gaylord during the 2021 Gaylord Gauntlet 5k & Obstacle Run. While watching, D’Antonio insisted she would do the race in 2022. True to her word, the 17-year old and her family will be doing the event next Satureday.

“Team Alena Strong” will feature 10 family members  and friends.

“We planned our vacation around the Gauntlet,” said Stacie D’Antonio, Alena’s mother. “She wanted to do this. She said so while she was sitting in the wheelchair last year. I’m so proud of her. It’s a measure of her success.”

“I was watching everyone do it and I wanted to do it this year because I wanted to show how far I have come,” Alena said. “It’s going to be interesting. My dad said he’s going all out and will try every obstacle. My mom doesn’t want to do every obstacle, but I’m going to make her.”

D’Antonio was born with a pre-existing condition: Agenesis of the corpus callosum. The corpus callosum is a thick bundle of nerve fibers that connects the right and left hemispheres of the brain.

D’Antonio was born without it. After suffering headaches over the years, an MRI revealed a brain tumor.

“I’ve been through more in this past year than I’ve had in my whole lifetime; it’s been a lot a lot of emotions this past year,” she said. “When I first found out I was wondering, ‘What am I going to do now? What’s going to change?’

“I was very upset at first. It took me a week to figure it out. But this is life and this is what happens. I have to get through it.”

D’Antonio’s parents both work in education. Dom is a counselor in Southbury. Stacie is a principal in Hamden.

A year ago, their lives were turned upside down.

“In late April or early May, Alena had an MRI for migraines, which she wasn’t managing well,” Dom elaborated. “That’s when it was discovered she had a brain tumor. They had no idea how long it had been there. Then we met with a specialist and the decision was made to remove it.”

A date was set: June 18.

“At first, it was extremely hard. It’s the fear of the unknown.” Stacie said. “She’s the type of kid who has worked hard through everything. She has her moments where she gets down and then picks herself up. The scariest thing as a mom was having her go through that surgery. But never once did she say, ‘Why me?’”

The surgery was close to the sensory motor area of the brain.

“We were concerned if her speech would come back and if her left side (mobility) would come back in six weeks or six months,” Dom said. “Given her position, they didn’t know what to expect. They are using her as a study.”

It was soon discovered that Alena had developed speech on both sides of her brain, so it came back to her right away. Mobility was another issue.

“Physically, her left side was tough,” Dom said. “She had to re-learn everything. I chronicled everything. She wanted everything documented.

“We have each of her hurdles on videos. The first one she was struggling to play Connect Four with her grandfather. She was just having a tough time. She just got better and better. Her main goal was to get back to softball.”

Dom has coaced Alena for 12 years. Alena, who just finished her junior year at Lyman Hall, is a first baseman. Their team plays in the senior division of the WGSL. They finished 10-10 this season.

“Softball is one of those sports I always felt connected to,” Alena said. “I started playing when my sister started playing. My grandfather was a great baseball player and my dad was a fast runner.”

In her first game back — it was Aug. 18, 2021 — Alena got a hit in her first at-bat.

She said some parts of the game were tougher than she remembered and required more thought and retraining. For example, the footwork when taking a throw at first base and other coordination challenges.

“It was a lot harder than I thought, but at times it just got better and better,” Alena said.

This year, her father reported, Alena was pretty close to normal. Her speed isn’t quite to what it was before her surgery, he said, but she showed improvement with each game.

“She’s an inspiration,” Dom said. “You are supposed to be the one teaching your children throughout life. Now she’s teaching us how to come back from adversity. When we complain about stupid everyday things we remember that our daughter came back from brain surgery.”

Alena has a twin brother Anthony and an older Sarah, who attends the University of Delaware.

“She’s really impressive,” Stacie D’Antonio said. “She’s lived her life with a brain issue, but the support of family and friends has been amazing. This was the most difficult thing for me in my whole lfe. She checked into Gaylord on a Wednesday after her surgery. She couldn’t do anything for herself. The following Wednesday she walked out, but it was several months before she felt normal.

“Honestly, I don’t know how she has the strength she has,” she continued. “Her father and I have navigated through this. You don’t hear about a 3-, 4- or 5-year old missing part of her brain. She has a regular neurologist and, if she hadn't had the MRI, the tumor would still be there.”

Along with softball, Alena has a passion for fashion and wants to pursue a career in the field in college.

Alena also works with the Lyman Hall Unified team and, with the help of teachers like Krista Kenney and Kristina Jensen, headed a fashion show as part of her Capstone project. Her show was featured on WTNH.

“She organized it,” Dom said. “She contacted different places to get donated outfits. She worked closely with a number of different teachers. She did a lot of work.

“Did she bite off more than she could chew? There were times where she did, but the show went on. A couple of models did come down with COVID a few days before the show, but it all worked out.’”

D’Antonio still gets headaches, mostly due to stress.

“I’m someone who is determined,” Alena said. “Even when I make a bad play or don’t hit well, I know I can do it the next time. I’m determined and hard working. I know a lot of people have gone through what I’ve gone through. There’s always a way to get back up.”

Alena noted that LH teacher Eileen Macri was extremely supportive of her over the past year. At Gaylord, occupational therapist Megan Palmer cared for Alena last year.

“She had left-sided weakness and a balance impairment,” Palmer noted. “She needed help washing and dressing. She progressed rapidly and incorporated her love for softball into our therapy sessions.

“She was a joy to work with. We wanted to get her back to her sports. It was touching to see how much her dad had an influence on her life and getting her back on the softball field. She wanted to get those skills back. When she did, I saw her light it. It was beautiful.”

Gaylord physical therapist Erica Cutler has a background in softball and incorporated that into Elana’s therapy.

“I was a coach for a very long time and we would do drills together — some fielding, running and coordination exercises,” Cutler said. “She was really fun. We are so proud of her achievements. Now that she’s doing the Gaylord Gauntlet, it shows her determination. Those obstacles aren’t easy and its going to be fun to see how far she has come in one year.”

More than 1,000 participants are expected at the Gauntlet on Saturday. Waves of teams will start at 8 a.m., with the last team going out at 2 p.m.

Stacie D’Antonio said her daughter continues to amaze.

“She’s unique, kind of quiet and shy,” Stacie said. “She works hard with the support of her family and close friends. This kid has an internal drive that’s just unbelievable. We’re so proud of her.”


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