Nov. 6, 2013

By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — On a July morning in her hometown of Paisley, Scotland, UVa field hockey standout Jenny Johnstone woke to a startling discovery. The right side of her face was paralyzed.

Johnstone didn’t panic, but her mother reacted as most parents would.

“She said, `Oh, my God, you’re having a stroke. Go lie down,’ ” Johnstone recalled, smiling at the memory.

Johnstone, who was between her second and third years at UVa, figured the condition would be short-lived, and so instead of seeking medical attention she showed up as scheduled at her summer job. Her co-workers urged her to see a doctor, however, and so she made an emergency appointment with her father, a family physician.

Dr. Christopher Johnstone quickly diagnosed the problem. His daughter had Bell’s palsy, which causes the weakening or paralysis of facial muscles.

“My eye was the main problem, because I couldn’t close my eye properly,” Johnstone said. “I still can’t. At the beginning it was very, very bad.”

She learned that a relative had contracted Bell’s palsy many years earlier, “but it’s not something that we all have or something common to the family,” Johnstone said. “But it’s kind of interesting, I’ve met a lot of people who know someone who’s had it or have had it themselves.”

The condition, in most cases, is temporary, but it can take months to go away.

“Straight away, the only thing they really do is put you on steroids for a couple days,” Johnstone said. “There’s no real treatment. If that helps, it helps. It didn’t really help for me. As soon as I came off them it got a lot worse. So it just kind of postponed the damage, and as soon as I came off them it got worse.”

The timing was less than ideal for Johnstone, an All-ACC goalkeeper as a sophomore in 2012. By the time she returned to Charlottesville in August to start preseason practice, her condition “was in full swing,” she said.

“So coming here with the heat as well was a struggle, because it dries my eye out a lot. I would be in a lot of pain during preseason, and playing for 70 minutes in games is really hard, even still if it’s windy or we’re facing the sun. But other than that, I try to take it lightly and joke about it.

“I think it’s quite funny. It’s easier to make jokes about it than get upset. Everyone’s always like, `If I was you, I’d be inside. I would never come outside.’ But you may as well just make fun of it.”

Before Michele Madison came to UVa, she coached at Michigan State, where she had a player one season who contracted Bell’s palsy and was unable to play. Madison, who’s in her eighth season at Virginia, marvels at Johnstone’s toughness.

“She’s never, ever complained one time,” Madison said. “She’s never asked for a practice off. During preseason, she’d sleep with a pad over her eye. But she kept training, and that’s what amazed me.”

Johnstone, who has represented Scotland at the under-16, under-17, under-18 and under-21 levels, passed all her preseason fitness tests at UVa, in impressive fashion.

“That was a statement to the rest of the team,” Madison said. “There are no excuses, you just get it done.”

Johnstone said: “I did everything. The running was the hardest thing, probably, the run test, because it was just constant wind in my eyes, so I had to run with an eye patch on, and that was hard, running in straight lines.”

She can shut her right eye now, “but it takes time,” Johnstone said, “and it’s constantly blurry right now.”

That hasn’t been apparent in her performance this season. For a goalkeeper to have an eye problem is a huge deal, Madison noted, but Johnstone has played all 1,364 minutes and 24 seconds in goal for the fourth-ranked Wahoos. Her save percentage — 74.5 — is higher than it was a year ago (72.0).

Johnstone said she worried that Bell’s palsy would affect her play, “but I think my left eye is compensating. I’ve never had to blame a goal on it, or it’s never been the cause of a goal, that I couldn’t see out of my eye, which is very handy.”

Madison said: “She keeps us in the game, for sure. When you have a kid like that making two or three saves on a shot, it gives us an edge.”

Virginia is seeded No. 5 in the ACC tournament, which begins Thursday in Newton, Mass. UVa (15-4) opens the tourney against fourth-seeded Duke (13-5) at 11 a.m.

With a 3-3 conference record, Virginia tied for third in the ACC with North Carolina and Duke but lost tiebreakers with those teams.

UVa edged Duke 4-3 in Charlottesville on Oct. 18. The winner of the rematch will meet No. 1 seed Maryland in the first semifinal Friday at 1 p.m. The championship game is set for 1 p.m. Sunday.

“This is the most confident I’ve felt going into the ACC tournament,” Johnstone said. “I can’t wait. I’ve been looking forward to this all season. ACCs are always huge. It’s just not NCAAs for us.”

The `Hoos are fortunate to have Johnstone, whose hometown is near Glasgow. Growing up in her native Scotland, she wanted to become a doctor, as her father (and his father) had, and planned to attend university in the United Kingdom.

“I applied for medicine back home everywhere, but it was very competitive, and I guess that kind of just made me realize that that’s not what I wanted to do with my life,” Johnstone said, “So I started looking at other options, and someone mentioned American scholarships one day, and on a whim I just emailed coaches.”

In her research, Johnstone said, she looked for schools that combined outstanding field hockey and excellent academics, and Virginia was “always No. 1” on her list.

“It just worked out perfectly that I managed to come here,” she said.

She’s majoring in environmental science, with a minor in history. “I love it,” Johnstone said with one of her trademark laughs. “It’s so much better than medicine.”

Madison had never heard of Johnstone before receiving her email. But Madison’s contacts in U.K. field hockey circles spoke highly of Johnstone, who won the starting job as a UVa freshman in 2011.

That team finished 8-12 and failed to advance to the NCAA tournament, in part because its two best players, Paige Selenski and Michelle Vittese, had withdrawn from the University to train for the 2012 Summer Olympics.

In 2012, with Selenski and Vittese back for their final seasons, UVa (16-6) advanced to the NCAA quarterfinals before losing to eventual champion Princeton.

“Last year I had no idea what it was going to be like,” Johnstone said. “I’d never been to the NCAAs. We were struggling for a .500 record [in 2011], so last year everything was new. We believed that we had a chance, and it didn’t go our way. This year I think we know we have a chance, and we’re so much more experienced in both the ACC and the NCAA now.”

With nine freshmen on the roster, and Selenski and Vittese gone, nobody was sure what to expect from the Cavaliers this season.

“That’s what’s been so great,” Johnstone said, “that we didn’t let losing some great players affect us. We realized that if we wanted to do well again, we had to come together as a team and rely on everyone. Players who are usually on the bench, they’re just as important as girls like me. Everyone contributes equally, and it’s great.”

Johnstone smiles easily and often, and most evidence of her battle with Bell’s palsy has vanished.

“It’s not noticeable now, which is good,” she said. “I mean, I still notice it, but that’s because it’s my face. But it’s definitely a lot better than it was, which is great. It’s getting there, just slowly. It’s a slow recovery.”

Print Friendly Version