Epilepsy doesn't stop Team USA goalie Gunn

Updated: February 15, 2006, 6:42 PM ET
By Lindsay Berra | ESPN The Magazine

When Chanda Gunn was 9 years old, she was a competitive swimmer. She wanted to be Janet Evans, with four gold medals to her name. But swimming, despite its lack of body checks, tackles and line drives, just wasn't safe enough. Chanda's parents, Rod and Penny, had more to fear than the usual injuries of sport. Their little girl had epilepsy, and seizures and swimming pools were a deadly combination.

So Chanda, ever the happy, agreeable kid, allowed her parents to take swimming away from her. She played soccer instead. And she played ball hockey with her brother in the driveway of their Huntington Beach, Calif., home until the street lights went on and it was too dark to see the ball. They stayed out a littler longer, but it wasn't enough. So, when Chanda was just about to turn 13 years old, she asked her parents for equipment to play a sport that was much safer than swimming, one in which broken bones and black eyes and chipped teeth offered a more comfortable alternative for someone with Chanda's condition.

Chanda Gunn
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesChanda Gunn and the United States are vying for gold in Torino.

She was going to play ice hockey. And she was going to be a goaltender.

Thirteen years later, Chanda Gunn stopped Caroline Ouellette in the final round of a shootout in the 2005 World Championships, ending Canada's eight-year run of World Championship golds. She was voted the best goaltender in the tournament with a 0.52 goals-against average and .967 save percentage. And she hadn't had a seizure in ages. She had reached the pinnacle of her sport and the pinnacle of her career, but it hadn't been so easy. Just four years earlier, Gunn thought her hockey career was over.

In the fall of 1999, Gunn arrived at the University of Wisconsin on a hockey scholarship and with her epilepsy under control. "I was under the misconception that my condition was fine," she says. "So I stopped seeing my doctor on a regular basis."

The medicine she had been taking for years became less effective when faced with the rigors and stresses of life as a hard-training and hard-studying college athlete. Plus, Gunn had grown bigger and taller and the dosage of the medication hadn't changed. She began having seizures almost every day, sometimes multiple times a day. They often left her confused and unaware of where or who she was. She was in and out of the hospital, seeing different doctors all the time.

"When you're having seizures, it's really scary to the people around you," Gunn says. "They supported me the best way they knew how, but it's hard to keep a goaltender when you're not sure if she's going to be in or out of the lineup, or if she's even going to be able to play again."

So just two months after her college athletic career had begun, a devastated and frustrated Gunn took a medical redshirt, packed her bags and headed home to California. She once again began working with her doctors to control her seizures -- caused by sudden bursts of abnormal electrical activity in the brain -- and to get her healthy enough to go back to her ice-hockey career. She began taking Depakote, an antiseizure medication, four times a day, and within four months she was back on the ice at the rink her father owned in Huntington Beach. But when Gunn was ready to go back to school, she had to find a new place to go. Gunn had not originally told the University of Wisconsin about her epilepsy; the Badgers had formally released her in January 2000.

Northeastern coach Heather Linstad had once coached a player, Katherine Waldo, who had played despite having cystic fibrosis. She agreed to give Chanda a second chance, and much to the delight of Northeastern, Chanda took it and ran.

As a sophomore, Gunn started 31 games for the Huskies and was named a second-team All-American and a finalist for the Patty Kazmaier Award, given to the most outstanding player in women's college hockey. As a junior, she became the first player to be a finalist for both the Kazmaier Award and the Hockey Humanitarian Award, given to college hockey's finest citizen. As a senior, she was named the NCAA Sportswoman of the Year, was again a Kazmaier finalist and finished her career as Northeastern's all-time leader in saves and save percentage.

"When you see Chanda's intensity and work ethic, you know right away why she's successful," said current Northeastern coach Laura Schuler, who still allows Chanda to work out with the team when she's not training with Team USA. "It's what she does when she's not in the net that makes her good. She's constantly working on her angles and agility, her stick skills, getting up and down, playing the puck. Everything she does, she does to the best of her ability."

In 2003, Gunn did her first tour of duty with Team USA, making the roster for the World Championships. In the 2004 World Championships, she posted an 0.86 goals-against average, and Team USA took silver.

After defeating Canada at last April's worlds on the strength of Chanda's goaltending, Team USA dropped six of eight pre-Olympic games to its archrival. But Gunn did defeat the Canadians in another spectacular shootout on Nov. 27.

She is managing her epilepsy with a healthy and nutritious diet, plenty of sleep (she said she gets a minimum of nine hours per night) and her daily dosage of Depakote, which is functioning nearly perfectly with no side effects. After the Olympics she will try a new extended-release form of the drug that will allow her take it less frequently.

"I will have seizures my whole life," Gunn said. "But they are under control and few and far between."

In addition to being one of the new faces of Team USA, Gunn is also a spokeswoman for the Epilepsy Foundation of America and publicly discusses her situation so that others can benefit from what she has gone through.

"Epilepsy has never stopped me from following my dreams," she said. "I hope that by sharing my story, others will learn that they too can set their own goals and work to achieve them no matter what their personal obstacles may be."

Now, Gunn's goal is nothing less than gold. And her parents won't worry at all as they sit in the stands in Torino. It is no longer a matter of life or death. The worst thing that could happen, after all, is that Chanda could give up a goal.

Lindsay Berra is a writer for ESPN The Magazine.

Lindsay Berra is an avid CrossFitter and a national correspondent for MLB.com. Follow her on twitter @lindsayberra.