From Preemie To Special Olympics, She Has Defied All Odds

By Aaron Morrison
The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)


At birth, Alyssa Sims could fit snugly in her father’s hand, she was about the size of his snow glove.

Born 2 1/2 months premature by C-section, she had to fight for life from the moment of delivery. Sims and her mother suffered from a prenatal condition that came close to being fatal for both of them.

“We were killing each other,” said Renee Herriott, Sims’ mother.

As a result, Sims’ lungs and central nervous system didn’t function properly, requiring a 2 1/2 month stay in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit.

She developed cerebral palsy. But despite that, Herriott said, progress came quickly, so much so that by the time Alyssa was a toddler, it was clear she would excel beyond the hopes of her loving and protective family.

They still pinch themselves at the thought that their tiny baby, now a 30-year-old woman, is a world-class Special Olympian.

As he watched his daughter’s wobbly balance on the uneven bars recently at Elite Gymnastics in Hawthorne, N.J., Rudolph Sims said: “I remember when she didn’t have the courage to do that. We were not expecting that she would do that well in gymnastics. It didn’t seem practical, when she approached us about it. She blew us all away.”

Nursing a recent knee injury, Alyssa Sims needs her body to be in top shape when she competes with a team of two dozen American gymnasts in the World Special Olympics competition in Los Angeles next summer.

Expectations are high for Sims, who raked in four gold medals and one silver at last year’s national competition in New Jersey. She wants to win big again, but not at the expense of enjoying the journey.

“I’m just keeping things low key for now,” Sims said at a recent training session. “I’ll work as hard as I can and get my stamina up. And I’ll have fun.”

People have called Sims the Gabby Douglas of the Special Olympics, a comparison to the Olympic gold medalist that she finds both flattering and anxiety-inducing.

Sims idolizes Douglas, who at 16 became the first African-American female gymnast to win the team and all-around individual categories in the 2012 Summer Olympics.

“I’ve already met her before,” Sims said, remembering Douglas’ visit to a Bergen County bookstore last April to sign copies of an inspirational book about her own triumphs over adversity.

“I was so choked up, I couldn’t get the words out,” Sims remembered.

Mentioning the Douglas comparison prompts a smile from Sims that reveals her immense pride in her achievements, in spite of body-movement challenges caused by cerebral palsy.

Each year, about 1 in 9 babies are born prematurely in the United States, according to the March of Dimes Foundation. Although many face a wide variety of health obstacles, which can be more severe the earlier a child is born, outcomes for those babies have been vastly improved by less invasive prenatal care and better postnatal treatment over the last 30 years, said Michael Giuliano, the director of neonatology at Hackensack University Medical Center.

“The good news is that time is on their side, in terms of development,” Giuliano said, adding that many premature babies go on to be high achievers later in life.

“The experience can motivate and inspire them as kids,” Giuliano said.

Sims is slightly taller than most of the young women she trains with at the gymnasium in Hawthorne. She exhibits a mostly steady form on the tumble track, with running starts she confidently attempts front handsprings, sticking some and landing off balance on others.

When Sims moves to floor exercise, the manifestations of cerebral palsy, a condition impairing fluid physical movement, sensation and cognition, are more apparent. Even to the untrained eye, landing after a punch front tumble is decisively more challenging for her.

Sims’ mother said that, by age 5, it was clear cerebral palsy wouldn’t hold her daughter back from everyday physical play and certain skills that required precision. Through much of her daughter’s teenage years, Herriott and Sims competed together in an amateur bowling league.

But there were times that Herriott and Sims’ father grew concerned at their growing daughter’s high tolerance for pain. As a kid, Sims could bloody herself playing outside and wouldn’t realize it on her own.

“She would come in and I’d have to clean her up,” Herriott said, who also recalled having to counsel her daughter about not “sticking her hand on the fire” or putting herself in danger.

Nonetheless, Sims’ coaches say she’s remarkably strong and holding up well for a gymnast her age.

The Hawthorne gymnasium, about 10,000 square feet in size, is equipped with Olympic quality equipment and draws more than 700 gymnasts and cheerleaders from throughout North Jersey and New York, said Sims’ coach, Nicole Capouet.

“Doing gymnastics is really demanding on your body, especially as you get older,” Capouet said. “You have to do the same skills for months or years before you actually accomplish it. You have to overcome your fears and Alyssa has that quality.”

Sims competes in the balance beam, uneven bars, floor exercise and vault. It’s the vaulting, a sprint down a runway onto a springboard and a leap over the vault table, that’s most daunting for her.

“That’s really hard,” she said. “But I’d like to improve all over. I like to give my all to everything. Go big or go home.”

On most training days, Sims is working out with girls from the Jersey Optional Gymnastics Association, a league of independent gymnastics clubs that compete in New Jersey. JOGA gives athletes, ages 5 through 21, competitive opportunities at a pace that allows them to participate in activities outside of gymnastics.

Amanda Thorpe, 19, of Totowa, N.J., who has been working out with Sims for a year at Elite Gymnastics, said Sims was admired for her “enthusiasm about learning.”

“She’s encouraging to everyone here, she shows that you never give up, you get up and you try again,” Thorpe said.

Saturdays are typically when Sims works out with other gymnasts from the Special Olympics team, which also trains at Elite Gymnastics. The entire American team got together in October in Indianapolis for an intensive training camp.

Special Olympics Team USA is a 491-member delegation and will compete in the 2015 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Los Angeles with more than 7,000 athletes from 177 countries. Other sports at the games include aquatics, bowling, power lifting and volleyball. It will all be broadcast on ESPN, which excites Sims.

“Now it’s going to be bigger, with more pressure,” she said. “But like last time, I’ll go out there and do what I know how to do.”

Herriott said it has taken a village to get Sims where she is, an aunt has helped pay for gymnastics lessons, Sims’ dad picks her up from training session in Hawthorne, and other family members are her die-hard cheering section.

At age 19, when Sims discovered gymnastics, she quit her bowling league to focus on the new sport full time.

After more than 10 years, Sims doesn’t let her recent success overinflate her ego. She said hard work and a higher power had been central to her success.

“I’m really, truly blessed,” she said.

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