Bulldogs join campaign against Myotonic Dystrophy

Inspired by junior goalkeeper Ona McConnell, the Yale field hockey team is launching its second annual campaign to raise awareness and funds for the Myotonic Dystrophy Foundation.

McConnell was diagnosed with myotonic dystrophy, the most common form of muscular dystrophy, as a freshman. The team’s campaign, titled “Get a Grip,” raised more than $50,000 last year. This year’s campaign begins with the season opener vs. Stanford on Saturday, Sept. 3, at 11 a.m. at Yale’s Johnson Field, 70 Central Ave.

The goals of the Yale field hockey team’s “Get a Grip” campaign are to increase awareness about myotonic dystrophy; raise funds for research; and support McConnell and others with the disease.

Yale will accept donations for the Myotonic Dystrophy Foundation at the game on Sept. 3, and all who donate will receive a wristband. “Get a Grip” T-shirts will also be on sale as part of the fundraiser. To help raise awareness, the Bulldogs will wear specially designed jerseys during the game.

Starting immediately and continuing throughout the 2011 season, the team is accepting pledges for a “Goal-a-thon” in which donations are based on the number of goals Yale scores for the season. (The Bulldogs scored 52 last year, tying for second-most in school history.) A pledge form and a link to make a donation are available at www.yalebulldogs.com/getagrip.

McConnell made her varsity debut in last year’s “Get a Grip” campaign launch game, a 5-0 win over Sacred Heart. She also appeared in two other games, totaling more than 30 minutes of playing time without allowing a goal. She was a National Field Hockey Coaches Association Academic Squad selection as a freshman.

Head coach Pam Stuper notes that McConnell has had a major impact on her team.

“Student-athletes at Yale are challenged physically, mentally and emotionally as they pursue a world-class education both on and off the field,” Stuper says. “Ona’s accomplishments despite her challenges are that much more incredible, as she continues to serve as an inspiration to her teammates as well as those young women and men fighting this crippling disease. She has learned at a young age to take nothing for granted. She practices like most people play, with an intensity and competitive fire that one brings on game day. She continues to improve in the weight room and out on the field, despite seemingly insurmountable odds. Every day she steps in goal brings a smile to my face, and — more importantly — to hers.”

Ona McConnell

McConnell is interested in attending medical school and spent this summer shadowing the head of the neurology department at Yale-New Haven Hospital, where she encountered other patients with myotonic dystrophy. During the summer of 2010 she was a paid intern at Beijing Normal University working in the functional magnetic resonance imaging laboratory under Professor Yu-Feng Zang. She currently is on the board of directors for the Myotonic Dystrophy Foundation.

Prior to coming to Yale, where she is a resident of Berkeley College, McConnell was raised in England and Germany (she is a dual U.S. and U.K. citizen). She led her field hockey team to victory at the Hessen State Championship and later played for West Hampstead women’s team, where she was named most valuable player.

“Yale, my coaches and my team have made all the difference as I confront this incurable disease,” McConnell says. “Their support has given me the confidence to continue studying at Yale and playing on the team while coping with myotonic dystrophy. Together we intend to raise more than $50,000 this year to fund research positions in finding a cure.”

Myotonic dystrophy (known as DM, for dystrophia myotonica) is an inherited disorder affecting approximately one in 8,000 people worldwide. It can appear at any age and manifests itself differently in each individual. DM causes muscles to weaken and progressively waste away in the heart, brain and gastro-intestinal tract as well as the endocrine, skeletal and respiratory systems. Since the gene was identified in the early 1990s, researchers have discovered that the genetic flaw generally enlarges and causes more severe symptoms in subsequent generations. There is currently no cure for the disease.

The Myotonic Dystrophy Foundation is a patient advocacy organization dedicated to leading and mobilizing resources toward effective management, treatment and ultimately a cure for myotonic dystrophy. The foundation’s medical and scientific advisory committee is comprised of leading American experts in the field of myotonic dystrophy and muscle research.

Additional information on the Myotonic Dystrophy Foundation can be found at www.myotonic.org.

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