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Allison Aldrich overcame several hurdles even before she participated in the Paralympics.

The only child of Marvin and Peg Aldrich of Schuyler was diagnosed with clear cell sarcoma at age 7. A lump on her right ankle was removed and tested positive for cancer. The best treatment — one that would allow her the most active life — was to remove the leg. Her right leg was amputated below the knee at University of Nebraska Medical Center. 

Since that time, Allison has gone to the Shriners Hospital in Minneapolis every six months to visit her prosthetist (the person who makes her artificial leg) and has grown through 15-20 prosthetic legs.

Allison hasn't been held back by having an artificial leg.

She participated in all the activities in which little girls take part. And when high school came, she did not slow down. The 16 year-old is on the junior varsity volleyball team and plans to go out for basketball at Schuyler High School.            

Last February, a newspaper article about Allison led to an adventure into international volleyball.

Brent Rasmussen, Omaha, a member of the men's sitting volleyball Paralympic team, saw the article and called Allison. Rasmussen also told Mike Hulett, the women's sitting volleyball Paralympic coach, about Allison.

In March 2004, Allison was invited to a sitting volleyball camp in Denver to try out for the Paralympic team. The team had been chosen earlier, but there were still two spots open.

"To get ready for the tryout," Allison said, "I went to Omaha to play with Brent. It was a new experience, moving on the ground with my hands. The only differences with sitting volleyball are that the net is shorter, the court's smaller and you can block a serve."

To maintain the sitting volleyball stance, one butt cheek must always be on the ground. If the player goes for a dive, the shoulder or hip must be on the ground. Allison said it really was easy to learn the new techniques. Allison returned from Denver a member of the 2004 Paralympic sitting volleyball team. At 16, she was the youngest member of the team. All team members are leg amputees, except for one who had an arm amputated.

"We each committed to practice on our own every day," Allison said, "with a minimum of 500 touches every day."

Allison also got together with Rasmussen weekly to practice. Between March and September, Allison attended five weeklong camps with the sitting volleyball team in Wisconsin, Texas, Georgia and Colorado.

She and the rest of the Paralympians flew to Washington, D.C. on Sept. 10 for team processing. They stayed together in a large hotel and received their Olympian gear.

On Sept. 11, more than 300 Paralympians boarded a charter plane to fly to Athens for the Paralympics. They landed in Athens on Sept. 12 and were bussed to the same village the Olympians had used. The team settled in and started practicing.

Opening ceremonies for the Paralympics were Sept. 17, with the same fanfare of the Olympics.

"It was really neat," Allison said. "The stands were packed. It was overwhelming hearing the Americans chant ‘U.S.A.' Another teammate and I were holding hands we were so excited. It was just like at the regular Olympics."

Marvin and Peg Aldrich arrived Sept. 20 in time for Allison's first game. Each athlete is given two free tickets to all their events, and the Aldriches were able to share this experience with their daughter. The team had an hour and a half to two-hour practice every day. The United States team had competed in Argentina to earn a spot in the Paralympics. Six teams competed for the Paralympic metals in Athens.

The first game was against Finland, and team U.S.A. won in five sets.

The next day, they played China and lost in three sets. 

"It was a really good game," Allison said. "I was honored to be selected as player of the game by my teammates."

Her award was the team mascot, Lucky Jack, a peg leg jackrabbit from the movie "Home on the Range."

Their next two games were against Slovenia and Ukraine, the U.S.A. team winning both games in five sets.

Their last game in the prelim was against Netherlands, which they lost in three sets, leaving them in third place. In the semifinals, they had to play Netherlands again and once again lost in three sets.

"It was a very tough match," Allison said. "We didn't communicate as a team that night. It was a tough loss."            

They played Slovenia for the bronze medal and won in four sets. China received the gold medal, Netherlands the silver.

Finally came the highlight of Allison's trip to Athens: "Being on the medal stand, receiving the bronze medal, olive wreath and the bouquet of flowers."

On Sept. 28, Allison participated in the short closing ceremony. The American Paralympians were supposed to leave Athens on Sept. 29, but their chartered plane had mechanical problems so they did not head home until Sept. 30.

But Allison's Paralympic experience wasn't yet over. 

Two weeks after returning from Athens, she joined other Olympians and Paralympians in Washington D.C. to meet President George W. Bush. A banquet was held in their honor Oct. 17 and the next day the group of almost 500 had their picture taken with the President. 

Allison has had to return to reality in Schuyler. She has had a tough time with some of her friends not accepting her back.

"They almost made me ashamed of it," Allison said. "I have a couple of close friends who have supported me throughout the experience. Some of my friends have come back, realizing that even though I won the medal, I am still the same."

Not to be deterred, Allison has set her sights on earning a spot on the 2008 Beijing Paralympics sitting volleyball team.

To summarize the whole experience, Allison uses a typical teen word: "Awesome."


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