Story from the July 27, 2011 Minneapolis Star Tribune with accompanying video package.
Alexa Score’s friends should have known better. When the 21-year-old former Spicer, Minn., resident said she wanted to become a professional wakeboarder, a few were skeptical of her ambitions.
But doubt the only rookie competing in the women’s pro division at WWA Wakeboarding Nationals in Minneapolis this week about anything and chances are you’ll be proved wrong.
After all, she has overcome far more than a few naysayers to find success on the water. Score stared down leukemia like an oncoming wave. She soared over it and has never looked back.
Score’s chronic myeloid leukemia was diagnosed on Dec. 1, 2006, in the middle of her high school gymnastics season. Right away, her doctors got concerned. Score wasn’t reacting to the news like they thought she should.
“Everyone knows I’m kind of stubborn,” said Score, who started wakeboarding when she was 10 and began pursuing it seriously around 16. “I don’t deal with that kind of thing well. If something’s messing with me, that’s going to give me that much more fire to beat it. I knew I was going to get better. There wasn’t any other way.”
Her family knew that, too. “My heart sank,” Score’s sister Tiffany said of the diagnosis. “Her reaction wasn’t tears. It was strictly determination. I can’t imagine someone telling me that and having that same attitude and reaction to something so serious. At 16 years old, to face your mortality with that kind of maturity is amazing.”
Alexa began sleeping 18 hours a day; the typically early riser even stayed in bed until 3 p.m. on Christmas that year. At times, she couldn’t sit up in bed. She went to school for just two hours a day.
That December, doctors at Children’s Hospital of St. Paul brought Score into a cramped hospital room with 2-foot-wide windows. Here, they said, she would spend the next few months after receiving the seemingly inevitable bone marrow transplant. The news was devastating.
But Alexa had no intentions of missing the summer. The Facebook group started by her sister said it all: Leukemia had no idea who it messed with.
“Things are going to happen, and you’re going to be in a lot of pain,” said Score, who will be a senior at the University of Central Florida. “It’s real easy to get discouraged, but you have to just have to keep that positive attitude. When you get down, look at those letters again and remember all the people who were behind you.”
Two and a half months later, she made a full recovery, without the transplant. The doctors were stunned. Maybe Score should have been also, but she was far too focused on getting better.
“Your mentality will make the difference in recovery no matter what it is,” said Score, who continues to take chemotherapy pills as a preventative measure. “Willpower and determination became 90 percent of my recovery.
“The human spirit, the will to live, those are the most powerful things in the universe.”
A 2007 gymnastics meet symbolizes Score’s journey.
All season, Score told her gymnastics coaches that she would compete at sections to help lead the New London-Spicer High School team to the state tournament for the first time.
“She was never looking for anybody to feel sorry for her,” Tiffany said. “I know for a fact that there are people who she’s known for years who don’t know that she lives with this burden.”
Days before sections, however, the bone pain made it impossible for Score, who had lost 15 pounds by then, to make it up the stairs. But new medication, suggested by her pharmacist father, helped reduce the inflammation.
The next day, Score was running up and down those stairs, a moment that brought her father to tears. Her team voted that she should compete. Score won the balance beam and reached states in the floor exercise. The Spicer-New London team won the sections team title.
“That was probably one of the best moments of my life,” Score said. “If anything could symbolize success, it was being able to share that moment with my team.”
Score moved to Orlando with her sister shortly after graduating from high school, then spent a year at the University of Minnesota. But she missed wakeboarding too much and knew she had to return to the sport’s capital.
Now, one year after winning the amateur women’s division at nationals, Score will compete for a title in the pro women’s division on Friday.
Standing on the dock by the Mississippi River while preparing for a brief training session, Score methodically coiled a wakeboarding rope.
Staring out into the distance, her dirty-blonde ponytail flapping in the breeze and a yellow Livestrong bracelet riding up her arm, Score was interrupted by boat driver Chris Bischoff. Apparently she was wrapping the rope a little too slowly.
“Wakeboarders are all the same,” Bischoff said from the front of the boat with a smile.
Score ushered a response that at once defined her capabilities as a warrior of the waves and cancer.