Sophomore women’s soccer midfielder Alexis Williams was playing with her high school club’s team at a tournament in Colorado when she found she couldn’t maintain her stamina on the field.
“It was the weirdest thing because I never had any running problems or anything, but I had to stop every second,” she said. “I couldn’t run.”
Williams knew she was physically fit, but questions from her coaches asking if she was out of shape frustrated her, particularly because being quick on the court was a hallmark of her game.
She forgot the incident when she returned home to New Jersey, where she was able to regain her normal abilities in the field.
But the moment in Colorado would come back to Williams’ mind when she took a sickle cell trait test before her freshman year of college — an NCAA requirement for athletes before their freshman season — and it came back positive.
“I was a little scared at first because I didn’t know much about it,” she said. “I mean I had heard of it, but I didn’t know it would affect me playing football.”
Sickle cell trait occurs when a person inherits both sickle cell disease and a normal hemoglobin gene. Having two sickle cell genes leads to sickle cell anemia, which is when blood cells form in a crescent shape, which increases clotting and decreases oxygen flow.
The sickle cell trait, which Williams tested positive for last year, tends to be asymptomatic.
Williams was first tested for the sickle cell trait as a child, alongside her older and younger sisters. Williams’ mother took her three daughters to get tested for the sickle cell gene because their father had sickle cell anemia.
Results for Williams and her younger sister came back negative, while her older sister tested positive for the trait. But the positive test that doctors thought belonged to her older sister years ago actually belonged to Williams, she said.
Williams led an active childhood despite unknowingly having sickle cell trait. She tried out softball, lacrosse, basketball, soccer and track and field, before pursuing track and field and soccer during her high school years. She attracted college coaches to her football games in her freshman year.
At GW, Williams has started in seven of eight games this season for the Colonials. She leads the team in goals scored with four and is one of only three players to have an assist.
“There were conversations earlier in the season and she knows how important she is to the team,” head coach Michelle Demko said.
The main risk factors that can lead to complications from sickle cell trait are low oxygen levels, dehydration and high altitudes – like what Williams experienced in Colorado.
When she was experiencing symptoms, Williams said her heart rate reached more than 200 beats per minute, well above the average 60 to 100 beats per minute. Her chest tightens and she said she sometimes feels dizzy and on the verge of fainting.
Williams said growing up, her mother made her drink a full container of coconut water before every football game, but she stopped when she got to college because she never liked it. taste.
“That’s when I started to realize I had a running problem and the heat got to me,” Williams said.
Now she drinks one bottle of Pedialyte or Powerade Zero the day before every game and three the morning of a game to ensure she is fully hydrated to prevent symptoms.
Demko, who took over the women’s soccer program in April, said she was immediately informed of Williams’ condition the first day she came to coach the team at the end of the spring season. She said she sat down with Williams and there would be “no questions asked” if Williams needed a break during a game.
“She’s a competitor, she doesn’t want to walk away at all,” Demko said. “So it’s just really reminding him and asking him ‘how are you feeling, do you need a break?'”
During football matches, athletes are not allowed to return to play in the first half if substituted, but athletes playing with sickle cell trait can re-enter the game if they have to go out because they are experiencing symptoms , according to NCAA rules.
Adrienne Mendel, a graduate assistant athletic coach, carries a copy of the rules with her to all games in case the referees are unfamiliar with the guidelines, Demko said.
Williams said it can be difficult for her teammates to understand why she doesn’t seem to be shoving every play, but she explains her reduced speed isn’t due to lack of effort.
Although the initial timing of the diagnosis was shocking to her, Williams said the coaching staff and athletic training team at GW made her feel safer.
“I’m not afraid anymore,” she said. “I just know it will be okay because I have good support around me.”