By Mark Soltau
Academics and athletics are cornerstones of the Stanford experience. But equally important to some scholar-athletes is a resource sometimes over-looked: Stanford Hospital. It's what helped sell Alyssa Wisdom and may have saved her life.
Wisdom, a senior from Coral Springs, Fla., suffered from hypertension and a heart condition growing up and was easily fatigued. She saw dozens of doctors, but wasn't properly diagnosed until she arrived at Stanford in 2010 to compete on the track and field team.
An accomplished sprinter, Wisdom placed fourth in the 100 in 12.31 seconds at the Florida state 4A championships in 2007, won the Broward County Athletic Association 200 crown in 24.55 and was second in the 100 in 11.94 in 2008. She came to The Farm seeking track success and answers to her health problems.
She has found both.
As a freshman in 2010, Wisdom finished fourth in the 100 and seventh in the 200 in the Big Meet. But it would be the last time she sprinted for the Cardinal. Doctors diagnosed her with a rare condition called congenital hypertrophic cardiac myopathy, and said the strenuous training could lead to a stroke or heart attack.
"There's like one in 12 million who have it," said Wisdom. "Something like 200 cases. It explained why I had everything."
It also broke her heart.
"It was hard because freshman year you are going through so many changes," she said. "To get everything thrown at me at once . . . it was a lot to deal with. I actually didn't know where to start. My life had just fallen apart."
So Wisdom did what she always has done: lean on her mother, Yvet, a registered nurse, and older brother, George, for guidance and support.
"She was upset and heartbroken," said Yvet. "I didn't have the right words to say to her. I just tried to comfort and encourage her."
Interestingly, Wisdom's brother suffers from the same condition. However, it's not as dangerous in males and he played rugby at Florida Atlantic University. Yvet, who is divorced, helped her daughter pick up the pieces.
"My mom was like that voice in my head," Wisdom said. "She was the rock who took me to all the track meets and knew how important it was to my life. She said, `I know this is something you really love, but your life is more important. One door closed is another door opened.'"
Wisdom always has been there for her mother, too.
"I'm a breast cancer survivor and she was just in high school," said Yvet. "I thought, 'Oh my God, I'm not going to see my kids graduate.' She always came with me (for treatments) and said, 'Mom, everything is going to be OK.'"
As a senior in high school, Wisdom threw the shot put at the district meet -- just to score points for her team -- and wound up leading the Colts to victory with a winning toss of 32-3 1/2. She had no plans to throw in college until doctors told her stop sprinting.
"Track has always been a big part of my life and I didn't want to give it up," Wisdom said. "I also wanted to keep doing sports since I love them so much."
Growing up, she kept her mother busy by competing in gymnastics, soccer, swimming, tennis, flag football and track and field.
"Sometimes I was running, and I didn't even know where I was running to," said Yvet. Although her body-type doesn't fit the mold of a shot putter, Wisdom has good upper-body strength and determination.
"What I lack in size, I make up for in strength because I am very, very strong," she laughed. "I may not have the size of other shot putters, but I've got the muscles."
With encouragement and instruction from the Cardinal coaching staff, Wisdom improved quickly and won the shot put at the Big Meet in 2011 with an outdoor season-best throw of 48-3 1/2. She also placed fourth in the hammer throw.
Last year, she recorded the fifth-best indoor showing in school history by putting the shot 50-8 3/4 in the MPSF Championships. During the outdoor season, Wisdom placed third in the Pac-12 Championships at 51-6 1/2.
Continuing to refine her technique, she produced a personal-best 55-8 1/4 at the 2013 MPSF Indoors and qualified for her first NCAA Championships.
Wisdom had a throw of 50-3 1/2 at the Stanford Invitational this past weekend. The Cardinal will be at the Sun Angel Classic this weekend in Tempe, Ariz. Wisdom also will be in action April 20 when Stanford hosts Cal in the annual Big Meet.
"Obviously, she is very gifted strength-wise, very explosive and very quick," said Michelle Eisenreich, associate head coach and throws coach at Stanford. "I think the other thing that's impressive is just her ability to focus in and make technical adjustments and changes. She's really become a good student of the event."
That's not surprising considering Wisdom earned Pac-12 All-Academic second-team honors last year and was named to the USTFCCA All-Academic team. Wisdom is majoring in psychology and minoring in Italian.
"My concentration is mind, culture and society, which is multi-culturalism," she said. "I'm doing lab research on how being from different backgrounds can be a positive thing."
Wisdom, who will return to Stanford next year to complete a co-term in psychology and has one year of eligibility remaining, is making the most of her experience. She started working in a homeless shelter in Florida during grade school and returns every summer. Through Stanford, Wisdom has volunteered in Italy and India, the latter a two-month service for female abandonment through The Haas Center for Public Service.
"I love this institution," said Wisdom. "I've gotten to explore all of my interests and the resources at this school are unsurpassed. That's the reason I've been able to go abroad and expand my research past the confines of my country's borders. I'm pretty sure when I leave Stanford, I'm going to pursue a career in the nonprofit sector."
Wisdom's parents are from Jamaica, but she was born in the U.S. She has become a Jamaican citizen and hopes to earn a spot on their national team and qualify for the World Championships in Moscow in August.
"Sometimes, I hear her dreaming and I see her dreaming and I don't think this is possible," Yvet said. "But I realize whatever she has it in her mind to do, from elementary school, she's just going to do it."
While Wisdom will always be a sprinter at heart, she has embraced throwing and wants to take it as far as she can.
"I love that it challenges me physically and mentally," she said. "I love that it's kind of like a problem to solve. You go up a step, then you plateau. It's not a linear line. You have to get out of your comfort zone with your technique because you want to keep on improving.
At the 2013 NCAA indoor championships in Fayetteville, Ark., she fouled three times and did not record a legal throw, preventing her from earning her first All-America honor.
"Sometimes it's scary, because in order to improve, you have to break it down and then put it back together," Wisdom said. There's always that fear that what if I break it down and forget to put the right thing back in? That's something I didn't necessarily get from sprinting."
It's hard to imagine any scholar-athlete who appreciates Stanford more than Wisdom. She has given back as much as she has taken, proving resilient every step of the way.
"Sometimes you take an ideal path to get to your ultimate goal and sometimes it's very hard to see that things will work out in the end," said Wisdom. "But they do."