26-year-old MC water polo player back in the pool after stroke

slynch@mercedsunstar.comAugust 23, 2013 

— In a time when Leslie Jackson desperately needed to hear some encouragement, there was little to be found.

The then 26-year-old had her world shattered when she suffered a ischemic stroke in her sleep.

In one night, the former Merced College All-American water polo player's slate was essentially wiped clean when a clot cut off the flow of blood to a portion of her brain, drastically affecting its right side.

Jackson lost the ability to speak, walk, write, and read along with most of her motor functions.

It was a humbling blow to a once elite athlete who had gone on to finish her career at UC Berkeley. More humbling were the reactions of doctors and therapists — both physical and mental — who told her to prepare for a very different life than the one she'd enjoyed.

Without a lot of optimism on her prognosis around, Jackson fortified her own determination.

"Not a lot of people believed in me, but I always believed in myself," said Jackson, who is studying to become a dental hygienist at Fresno City College. "Anything I've ever put my mind to, I've been able to accomplish. ... It's been a long, difficult two-and-a-half years since the stroke, but I've come a long way."

Jackson said only some parts of her face droop and her speech is only occasionally sluggish. However, her motor skills are vastly improved. She's still battling with aphasia — the loss of ability to speak or understand spoken or written words — but continues to see improvement.

Jackson's come so far, in fact, that she's ready to hit the water again when the MC water polo teams gather on Saturday afternoon for the annual alumni game at the Blue Devil pool.

"It's going to be a little different," Jackson said. "I was right handed when I played at Merced College. After the stroke I'm completely left handed now. I can't be as competitive as I once was, but I'm looking forward to reconnecting with people and seeing (Bill) Halpin."

The former Lady Devil water polo and swim coach said he was shocked by her recovery, but probably shouldn't have been.

"Her mom sent me videos and kept me updated on how she was doing," Halpin said.

Halpin said the first year was "really tough," for Jackson, and she couldn't really communicate with people. Then Halpin saw her about a year ago, and he couldn't believe the difference.

"But that's Leslie. She was a two-time All-American swimmer and water polo player because of her work ethic. She works hard and doesn't like to lose," he said.

"For you and me, a stroke would be a major setback to our lives. For Leslie, it was just a bump in the road."

Sports reporter Sean Lynch can be reached at (209) 385-2476 or slynch@mercedsunstar.com.

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