Female hockey player overcomes epilepsy, sets sights on 2006 Winter Olympic Games

Posted: Tuesday, June 15, 2004

HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. Chanda Gunn is a dynamo on skates, charging up and down the rink with her young students, banging her hockey stick on the ice and yelling words of encouragement.

She is a long way from her epilepsy-induced fog of a few years ago, when she faced the possibility of brain damage, even death.

When coaches said her career was over, Gunn never gave up.

Now, having wrapped up a college career as a standout goaltender at Northeastern, she's a member of the U.S. women's team and also teaches the game.

''It's definitely somewhat of a minor miracle that I don't have significant brain damage,'' she said, sitting behind her desk at Surf City Skate Zone in an office cluttered with hockey gear.

The 24-year-old Gunn was first diagnosed with epilepsy when she was 9, but medication brought it under control. As she grew up, she stayed on the same medication and dosage, not checking with doctors. That caught up with her when she was a freshman at Wisconsin.

''I just started having seizure after seizure, didn't know my name, didn't know where I was, my motor skills were off,'' Gunn said. ''I don't remember a lot about it because I was out of it. I was having so many seizures, I didn't have time to recover from one before I had the next one.''

Kerry Weiland, who played with Gunn at Wisconsin and now on the U.S. national team, recalled the toll the seizures took on her friend.

''She was disoriented and just couldn't play hockey safely, and even everyday tasks were difficult for her,'' Weiland said by phone from her home in Palmer, Alaska.

Gunn wound up in the hospital for more than a month, then spent four months recuperating at home in California.

''I was in no condition to even leave the house,'' she recalled.

Her mother, Penny Gunn, was frightened over her daughter's condition, but confident she would beat epilepsy.

''I always knew that she would bounce back and be where she is today,'' she said. ''I had no doubts just because of who she is and her determination.''

The coaches at Wisconsin did not want Gunn to rejoin the team because of her condition. So she immediately started looking into other colleges, most of which were wary because of Gunn's epilepsy.

Then Northeastern gave her a chance.

''There's no quit in her whatsoever,'' said Rich Garvey, a former Northeastern assistant, who coached Gunn on both the women's U.S. national ice and inline hockey teams. ''The best way to describe her is that she faces adversities hers or other people's head-on.''

Gunn became an All-American and this past season led the nation with a .938 save percentage, and was 10th with a 1.94 goals-against average.

''Looking back, I think she can persevere through anything,'' Weiland said. ''I don't think there are many people who could have picked themselves up the way Chanda did and excel.''

Gunn, who played soccer and surfed before she took up hockey seriously at 14, will be honored for her inspiration at the Collegiate Women Sports Awards on June 21 in New York. She received college hockey's 2004 humanitarian award earlier this year.

''She really cares about people,'' said former Northeastern coach Joy Woog. ''She was great at helping younger players.

''Even with her older teammates, she would notice when one of them was feeling down and would take her out to dinner or buy her a card or something.''

And Gunn's just as generous now.

She has devoted many hours as a volunteer, with tots, teens and octogenarians. She worked with underprivileged kids, participated in the Big Sister program and spent time with nursing home patients.

''Everybody thinks that I'm a saint, but I just had the greatest time,'' she said about her experience volunteering at a Boston nursing home. ''The old people never get any credit.''

Gunn wants to play at the 2006 Turin Olympics. This fall she plans to work as a trainer with U.S. sled hockey athletes, paraplegics who play hockey on sleds, while continuing her studies in sports medicine at Northeastern.

Epileptic seizures occur when nerve cells in the brain malfunction. The condition can be triggered by different stimuli, including fatigue and stress. The effects can range from brief disorientation to violent convulsions.

Gunn has successfully controlled her epilepsy by taking anti-convulsive medication.

''I was having so many seizures they thought for sure it would have some sort of permanent effect, but it hasn't,'' Gunn said. ''I've had my IQ tested and it's fine more than fine.''

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