From her legs not working to setting a record, the ACP swimmer perseveres


Ashlyn Tierney’s first high school swim season couldn’t have gone better.

She quickly broke a Chandler Arizona College Prep record in the 100-yard backstroke. She is aiming for a record in another event.

She gives the school hope that they can win their first Division III state swimming and diving championships in November.

It’s hard to believe that two years ago, at the age of 12, Ashlyn’s legs stopped working. Suddenly, out of nowhere, she lost feeling in her legs.

“I was sitting in class and I wasn’t feeling well,” Ashlyn said. “So I went to the nurse’s office and lay down. And it happened.”

Ashlyn Tierney, 14, a freshman on the Arizona College Prep swim team, swims during a workout at Chandler High School's Kerry Croswhite Aquatic Center in Chandler September 20, 2022.

Tierney saw a neurologist, psychiatrist, counselor, and physical therapist to diagnose the cause. After tests and scans, the diagnosis was conversion disorder, her mother Lindsey said.

There was nothing physically wrong, Lindsey said. No nerve damage. It wasn’t paralysis. She said it’s the body’s physical manifestation of stress and anxiety, the brain being overwhelmed with a “fight/flight/freeze” response.

She used a wheelchair for the first few weeks, but she used her legs, albeit extremely slowly, for the first few days after they stopped working, her mother said. She used a walker. She had help from others to walk. Then she walked alone. But, as her mother described, it was “like a zombie walk.”

The family was helpless and scared.

“It was more like not knowing when that time would end,” Ashlyn said. “It was just a waiting game.”

Three months later, the numbness disappeared and she regained full use of her legs.

“It was the weirdest thing,” Ashlyn said. “I was at training and my boyfriend was annoying me. ‘Can you feel it now? Can you feel it now?’ I was like, ‘Oh, yes, I can.’”

Ashlyn Tierney, 14, a freshman on the Arizona College Prep swim team, prepares to swim during a practice session at Chandler High School's Kerry Croswhite Aquatic Center in Chandler September 20, 2022.

Full feeling and use of her legs returned as quickly as if they had stopped working.

But that’s not all.

She is also dealing with fainting spells, which she has had since she was 3 years old.

It’s called vasovagal syncope, which is more common than conversion disorder. There are triggers that bring it on, such as seeing blood. Ashlyn can become so dizzy that she faints temporarily if she bumps into something.

When she regains consciousness, her mother said, her body movements can resemble a seizure, but it has nothing to do with the brain. Lindsey said it was due to a sensitive nervous system.

It’s all amazing for Ashlyn, who said she’s never felt anxious. Especially with the conversion disorder.

Lindsey has researched this extensively and discovered that it can happen to teens who are high achievers and put a lot of pressure on themselves.

“She was a top athlete at the time,” Lindsey said. “She had a lot of pressure in her life. But her body didn’t recognize that she was stressed. It was like her body was telling her, ‘If you don’t see it, I will see it.’ “

Ashlyn said she was told the anxiety built up to the point where she couldn’t physically feel her legs.

“I was in the hospital and the doctors said, ‘Were you stressed?’ ‘ Ashlyn said. ‘I’m like, ‘No, I’ve lived my life.’

“It was hard for me to see it. So if I’ve ever felt anxious, it’s been insane levels.”

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Ashlyn still passes out, sometimes from the smallest of things, like bumping her elbow. Lindsey attributes it to her daughter’s hyperactive nervous system. She has worked with therapists to help manage her anxiety.

When she’s in the pool, she doesn’t worry about it. It did not happen.

Ashyln knows that when she has that trigger to lie down so she doesn’t hit her head. She quickly snaps out of him.

“I get a sensation and I’m like, ‘Okay, I’ve got to take a minute,'” Ashlyn said.

She’s an energetic, happy kid who was embraced by her coaches and teammates at Arizona College Prep.

She immediately let her trainer Kristine Nelson know what she had been dealing with in her life.

“She exudes positivity, it’s just amazing,” Nelson said. “Rarely do you get a newcomer who just walks in and insinuates himself into the team.

“From the way she alerted us, she’s a pro.”

When she’s in the water and swimming laps during her workout, Ashlyn says she thinks about what’s for dinner? don’t know if something will trigger a fainting spell. She doesn’t worry about being first in the pool. Most important to her is having fun.

“At first I was in denial because it was so hard for me to even feel fear,” Ashlyn said. “I say, ‘I’m not afraid. I’m fine.’ But it was able to recognize more signs and then just get more comfortable with my feelings and understand what they mean and where they’re coming from.

“I am a very structured, analytical person. The knowledge versus the ignorance was the hardest part. It’s just a matter of finding a structure for how to deal with it.”

To suggest ideas for human interest stories and other news, reach Obert at [email protected] or 602-316-8827. Follow him on Twitter @azc_obert.

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