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Rossi realizes dreams through support of team

This is a story about two girls who teamed up to do
what many considered impossible.

It's about Alyssa Rossi, a senior who wanted to run
for the Royal (Simi Valley, Calif.) track team despite being
born blind. And it's about sophomore Nicole Todd, who
has made incredible sacrifices to make it happen.

When Alyssa initially approached Royal coach Jay
Sramek about running cross country last fall, both he
and the school's administrators were concerned about
liability and safety. But Alyssa remained undeterred.

"I enjoy proving people wrong," she says.
Alyssa had run for her previous school, Desert
Christian (Lancaster, Calif.), before transferring to Royal
as a junior. She competed at Desert Christian by tying a
rope to a belt around her waist and having an assistant
coach use the rope to guide her along the way.

Eventually, Sramek agreed to give it a shot for track
season this spring. Only at Royal, fellow runners would
aide Alyssa rather than coaches.

At the beginning, team members took turns running
with Alyssa and guiding her around the track. But to
optimize her performance she needed to build rapport
with just one aide.

Enter Nicole, who has battled injuries throughout
her career and always seems to push herself too hard to
make it back, leading to even more maladies. Coming
off yet another injury this spring, Nicole needed to take
it easy.

It proved to be a match made in heaven. Alyssa and
Nicole started working together every day.

Nicole would take the lead and tailor her workout to
Alyssa's. When Alyssa needed to speed up, Nicole sped
up. When Alyssa needed to slow down, Nicole slowed
down. The two communicated constantly by tugging on
the rope and yelling instructions.

It didn't take long for them to become close friends.
To help Alyssa learn the training course, Nicole came
up with fun nicknames for landmarks along the path.
There were Chocolate Tree, Dinosaur Ditch and Bubbly
Bumps. Each name meant something different such as
an upcoming turn or rough terrain ahead.

Alyssa became like every other member of the team.
The coaches weren't satisfied that she was simply out
there. Instead, they pushed her to improve.

That's exactly what happened. Alyssa blended in
with her teammates so well that her disability became an
afterthought.

"If I didn't see it with my own eyes I wouldn't believe
it," Sramek says.

Then it was time to race.

Now, it would have been one thing for Nicole to
forgo her individual practice routine to help Alyssa.
But sacrificing an actual meet and the chance to set a
personal best? That's an entirely different story. Still, the
thought of leaving Alyssa never crossed Nicole's mind.

"I've never been really fast, so if I was going to be
toward the back anyway why not do something that
would benefit her, too?" Nicole says.

The first event of the season was the March 14
Royal Twilight Invitational. Alyssa and Nicole competed
together in the 1,600 meters.

By the time they approached the finish line, the top
runners had been done for several minutes. But all the
competitors and spectators remained glued to the race.

"For that last 100, everyone stopped what they were
doing and just started clapping and cheering," Sramek
says. "Alyssa's shoulders lifted and her fatigue just
evaporated. She was smiling ear to ear as she crossed
the finish line."

Alyssa might not have been able to see the crowd,
but she heard the cheers and felt the excitement. Just as
importantly, she learned something about herself.

"It made me believe I could do something that I didn't
think I could do," she says.

Ryan Canner-O'Mealy covers high school sports for ESPN RISE Magazine.