May 8, 2018
CHARLOTTESVILLE — First came an unintelligible text message. It might have been sent accidently, Kelly Turney thought, but she responded anyway, only to receive another text that was equally incomprehensible.
Turney, an assistant athletic trainer at the University of Virginia, grew alarmed. So she called the young woman who’d sent her the texts — Ali Zwicker, a rower whom Turney saw almost daily.
“It was that heart-dropping, pit-of-your-stomach moment,” Turney recalled, “because she told me, `I know who you are, but I don’t know your name.’ “
It was a Friday morning — April 8, 2016 — late in Zwicker’s third year at UVA. A native of Victoria, British Columbia, Zwicker had gone, after a short rowing workout, with teammates Lyndsay Martini and Karen Schulte to the Observatory Hill dining hall, where they stopped by the omelet station.
“I was staring at all the ingredients, and I couldn’t remember a single name,” Zwicker recalled. “I knew what I wanted, but I figured, `OK, I can’t point to this one, this one and the one in the back.’ I figured with the line behind me it would be too embarrassing, so I ended up going for the scrambled eggs.”
Before they left for O-Hill, Martini recalled, Zwicker had “said something like, `OK, guys, I’m ready to go get dessert.’ I guess she meant breakfast, but we just thought she was kind of being funny. We didn’t really think anything of that. So that was probably the first thing that she said that didn’t really make sense.”
After sitting down to eat with Martini and Schulte, Zwicker realized her words had become jumbled. So she texted Turney. When that method of communication proved ineffective, Turney called to ask Zwicker where she was.
“I had no idea what it was called,” Zwicker said, “and I’d been going to this dining hall since I was a first-year. So I’d been going there for three-and-a-half years. I had no idea where I was. So that’s when I started to panic.”
Her phone conversation with Turney triggered a series of events that landed Zwicker at the University of Virginia Medical Center later that morning. At the hospital, testing produced a sobering diagnosis.
Doctors discovered a blood clot, about the size of a dime, behind her left ear. Three weeks after her 21st birthday, Zwicker had suffered a stroke.
“It was really scary,” said Martini, who roomed with Zwicker. “I think I got to see her [again] maybe two or three days after it happened, when she was finally doing OK and was able to see people, and just seeing her recognize you but not be able to remember your name or remember certain things, I think that was the scariest part.”
Two years later, Zwicker has fully recovered from her stroke. She’s about to walk the Lawn for the second straight year — this time to receive a master’s degree from the Curry School of Education — and has rowed on the Cavaliers’ top boat, the Varsity Eight, for much of this season. She’s a team captain and “a joy” to coach, said Kevin Sauer, who’s run Virginia’s program for three decades.
“You can’t really write a story better than that,” Turney said.
There were no guarantees, however, that Zwicker’s story would end so happily. Her condition deteriorated after she was admitted to the hospital on that spring day in 2016.
“The woman that was putting in all the registration [information] asked me what my name was, my birthday, what sport I played, what school I went to,” Zwicker said. “I couldn’t remember my name or my birthday. And the school that I gave her was my elementary school” — St. Andrew’s, in Victoria — “not UVA. So it was jumbled up.
“I remember not remembering my name or my birthday, but the thing with the stroke was that a lot of the time, the stuff that I was saying, I didn’t realize that it was wrong. I knew everything that was going on, in my head. I understood what people were asking me, and I knew what I wanted to say. It was just actually saying it. That connection was gone.”
Her father had a stroke when he was in his 20s and still gets tested regularly. Growing up, Zwicker and her sister, Becca, who’s younger, were diagnosed with antithrombin III deficiency, a genetic condition that causes the blood to clot more than normal.
She’d missed the previous week of practice, Zwicker said, with the flu, and spent much of that time “horizontal on the couch.” Moreover, she’d experienced some headaches that week.
Still, Zwicker said, “I’d never really had any issues with clotting or having pain in my legs or my lungs or anything like that. Both my sister and I were tested for it, and we knew that we had it, but we didn’t have any of the precursors of a stroke.”
Turney said: “We knew that Ali had [antithrombin III deficiency], but we were also under the impression from her doctors at home that she’d made it through her teens and we were kind of out of the woods. Because they never put her on any medication for it. And now here she is at 21, and I’m like, `Nope. I guess we’re not out of the woods.’ “
Later that first day, Zwicker lost vision in her right field in both eyes. Her condition was no better the next day, a Saturday, when her teammates raced against Duke at the Rivanna River. Her attempts at speech were unproductive.
“It would just come out as a babble of sounds,” Turney said. “At that point, it wasn’t even words.”
The parents of one of Zwicker’s closest friends, Jeff Caldwell, drove up from North Carolina to be with her in the hospital, and they remain pillars in her life. Zwicker’s mother arrived in Charlottesville that Saturday. Zwicker’s father and her sister followed three days later.
Three days after she was admitted to the hospital, Zwicker was discharged. She was considered at risk for falling, though, so she moved out of the apartment she shared with Martini and into a first-floor apartment UVA made available for Zwicker and her family.
Then began the long, slow process of recovery for Zwicker, whose mother stayed with her for six weeks until they flew home together. In addition to taking medication — “I’m on anticoagulants for life now,” said Zwicker — she started working with speech therapist Mark Evans.
“I wasn’t able to read at that point,” Zwicker recalled. “Looking at a screen and reading, there were too many words on the page in order to be able to read. So we started off really slow. We started reading words, or he would point to things and ask what they were.
“He had this toolbox that had a pencil, a doorknob, a calculator, stuff like that, and he would just pick it up and say, `What’s this?’ A lot of the times I would know, and I’d think, `I’ve definitely seen that before,’ but I couldn’t remember the name of it.”
Week by week, her speech improved.
“We started reading one word and pronouncing those correctly,” Zwicker said. “And then we moved on to phrases, and then sentences, and then paragraphs.
“It depended on the day. A lot of the recovery was just sleep, because my brain was so tired and so overworked. So after an hour in speech therapy, I would go home and completely crash in the place where we were staying.”
Zwicker, who carried a double major in French and Italian, missed two weeks of classes. Her academic advisor, Kate Stephensen, contacted Zwicker’s professors to let them know what had happened.
“They were all really willing to work with me,” Zwicker said.
At the end of the exam period in May 2016, she took two Italian finals. She also had classes in French and Arabic, all of which she completed by Aug. 2 that summer.
“I think in hindsight I probably shouldn’t have taken the two Italian exams that I did,” Zwicker said with a smile, but she managed to pass them and so stayed on track to graduate in May 2017.
Her first priority after getting out of the hospital, Zwicker said, was completing her academic requirements for the spring semester. But her future in rowing was never far from her mind.
As a sophomore in 2015, she rowed on UVA’s Second Varsity Eight at the ACC and NCAA championships, and she’d moved up to the Varsity Eight in the fall of her third year.
Zwicker recalls a conversation she had with Sauer in May 2016, a few days before she and her mom were scheduled to fly home.
“I was sitting Kevin’s office and we were chatting a little bit,” Zwicker said, “and he said, `OK, let’s talk about the elephant in the room here. What do you think about rowing?’ “
Sauer had his own thoughts.
`He said, `You’ve got to take care of yourself. We don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t know if you’ll be able to (A) row again or (B) row competitively. I’m here to support you as much as you need as much as I can,’ ” Zwicker said.
“And so that was really comforting to know, as I was leaving for the summer, knowing that I still had his support.”
Before heading home that spring, Zwicker had stopped by practice a couple of times to see her teammates.
“I think they were kind of surprised to see how much I had changed,” she said, “Of course, I didn’t really feel any different. I was just going back to the boat house and talking with all my friends. But I think they were able to see how much I was struggling to find the words.
“I was really nervous going to practice, but I also knew I had to go. I’d been with these people for so long that I couldn’t just fall off the face of the earth after this. I really wanted to be with them and support them as much as I could going into ACCs and NCAAs, even if I wasn’t able to row.”
Back in Victoria, Zwicker stayed in regular contact with Turney and slowly began increasing her physical activity.
“I started walking around with my mom,” Zwicker said. “Then I could walk on a treadmill uphill a little bit. Then I started doing one minute on the [rowing machine].”
One minute soon became two minutes, and two became five.
“Some days I could get up to 15 [minutes],” Zwicker said. “And then other days, if I started to get a headache, I would have to stop. That was one of the hardest things: knowing that this wasn’t really one of those times when you can push through the pain. I kind of had to learn how much was too much and figure that out.”
Determined to resume her rowing career, Zwicker returned to Charlottesville for the 2016-17 school year with that goal in mind.
“I had no idea how she was going to be able to handle that,” said Martini, who roomed with her again. “Obviously, coming back from a stroke is extremely challenging, and then rowing is not an easy sport.”
At the start of every school year, UVA’s rowing team runs the Charlottesville Women’s 4-Miler, a fundraiser for breast cancer care and research. The race starts and finishes at Foxfield on Garth Road. After the 4-Miler on Sept. 3, 2016, UVA’s rowers gathered together for a team meeting while the parking lots cleared.
Sauer had asked Zwicker to address her teammates, and “she was super nervous about it,” Martini said.
“She had obviously told people about her stroke, but I don’t think she’d really told a group about it. So she just wasn’t sure how people would take it. She had a bunch of new teammates. I think she was just worried that people would look at her differently or treat her differently because of this, and she wanted people to know she wasn’t going to let it set her back.”
Zwicker had walked the course that morning, because “I wasn’t up to running four miles by the time I got back,” she said.
Because of her speech therapy schedule, Zwicker knew she wouldn’t be able to attend every workout that semester, and she wondered how her teammates would react to that. A first-year class had joined the program since she’d last competed for the Wahoos, and Zwicker said she didn’t want the newcomers “to think, `Who is this chick? She shows up half the time and thinks she’s part of the team.’
“At that point I hadn’t really spoken to the team as a whole. In the spring I went for a few practices and they kind of saw where I was in speech-wise and how I had changed, but they really didn’t get an explanation from me about what actually happened
“So I put together something and practiced it a few times, because at that time I would still stumble and forget my words, but I kind of told them what a stroke was and what happened, specifically with me, and how it affected me in terms of word-finding. I told them, `I promise, I did know who you were. I just couldn’t remember your names.’
“There were quite a few tears, by myself included. I think I started first and then it was a tidal wave.
“I don’t know why, but I was really worried about what the team would think and how they would react. Because for a lot of us, having a stroke happens to your grandparents. It doesn’t happen to people three weeks after they turn 21, especially with no precursors.”
Zwicker, who no longer requires speech therapy, need not have worried. She had her teammates’ full support throughout her comeback.
“It was definitely really inspirational,” said Martini, who graduated from UVA last spring and now works as a project analyst in Northern Virginia.
“Obviously, it was not easy,” said Martini, who remains close with Zwicker. “I remember our fourth year, I would drive her to speech therapy classes and stuff, and it was really cool to be able to see her deal with something that was so hard, but she did it with a lot of humility, and you never heard her complain about it or anything. I know personally I would have been frustrated.”
As the fall semester progressed, Zwicker grew stronger, and it appeared she might be able to row in the Princeton Chase on Oct. 30, 2016. But a blister on her right hand became infected, and she spent three days in the hospital.
“How much can this kid take?” Turney said she asked herself. But Zwicker persevered.
“No matter what has been thrown at her, she has been gracious and humble,” Turney said. “I don’t know that I could do it. She’s just pleasant to be around. Happy to be around. Happy to have what she has. Thankful to have what she has. Has gratitude for everything. Everything is a please and a thank you.”
Once she was out of the hospital, Zwicker set a new goal: to race at the Rivanna Romp on Nov. 13, 2016. Seven months after suffering her stroke, she reached a milestone in her comeback.
Zwicker raced that day, in the Cavaliers’ Third Varsity Eight, and then rowed in the Second Varsity Eight at the ACC and NCAA championships last spring.
There was more that made the spring of 2017 so memorable for Zwicker. In April, the NCAA granted her another year of eligibility, which would allow her to compete in 2017-18 as a graduate student.
At the Hoos Choice Awards last May, she received the Craig Fielder Memorial Award, given annually to a UVA student-athlete who overcomes great adversity, and later that month she graduated, on schedule, with a bachelor’s degree in French and Italian.
At this year’s Hoos Choice show, last week at John Paul Jones Arena, Zwicker received the Coaches Award for Excellence for rowing. Sauer lets his rowers vote on that award, and their choice was Zwicker.
“I would have voted for her too,” Sauer said.
Zwicker is finishing her master’s in higher education, with a focus in intercollegiate athletic administration. Her busy schedule this school year has included an internship in the UVA football office. After graduating, Zwicker plans to return to British Columbia and has applied for a job with Rowing Canada, the national governing body for the sport in her native country.
A representative of the organization called Sauer recently.
“She said, `I’d like to interview you and get a reference for Ali,’ ” Sauer recalled. “And I said, `Well, how long is this going to take?’ And she said, “Fifteen or 20 minutes,’ and I go, `Nope. Thirty seconds.’ And she goes, `Why is that?’ And I go, `Because I’m going to tell you everything you need to know in 30 seconds.’ “
In his 41 years as a college coach, Sauer told the Rowing Canada rep, Zwicker “is in my top five of all time in every way that a coach or a teammate or anybody else would want: integrity, character, hard work, grit, resilience, all the things we’ve talked about. And I wouldn’t have any question about hiring her.”
“And the woman goes, `You’re right. Interview over.’ “
The ACC championships are Sunday at Clemson. Zwicker will try to help the `Hoos win the conference title for the ninth consecutive year. She’s returned from her setback a better rower who has learned, the hard way, to take nothing for granted.
“There was a quote that I found two years ago, after I had the stroke,” Zwicker said, “and it says: They say you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, but the truth is, you knew what you had. You just thought you’d never lose it.”