La Center gymnast battles lifetime of illness to reach state gymnastics meet (video)

Ashley Helmold has overcome meningitis, cancer and a chronic gastrointestinal disorder

By Micah Rice, Columbian Sports Editor

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Ashley Helmold talks about the medical challenges she has overcome to return to gymnastics after missing five years.

In a life filled with medical challenges, Ashley Helmold has shed many tears.

But she’ll always cherish the tears of joy that rolled down her cheeks last weekend.

Helmold qualified for the state gymnastics meet, which takes place Friday and Saturday at the Tacoma Dome Exhibition Hall.

The La Center High School senior’s triumph goes way beyond reaching state in the vault and balance beam.

She competes despite having a port near her navel, where she inserts a feeding tube each night to nourish herself in spite of a chronic gastrointestinal disorder.

She competes despite standing just 4-feet-4. Her growth is stunted because her adrenal gland was removed when she battled cancer as a toddler.

Mostly, she competes to feel normal. Gymnastics has given Helmold a sense of belonging most teens take for granted.

Instead of hanging out at coffee shops or going to sleepovers, Helmold’s teenage years were filled with doctors appointments and days spent too sick to get out of bed.

She’s in her fifth year at La Center High, a “do-over year” as her mother calls it. And it has been her best year yet.

With her mystery gastrointestinal disorder finally diagnosed last year after a visit to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, Helmold is reclaiming a normal life one step at a time.

Or make that one twirl, leap or vault at a time.

“There have been many instances of ‘Why have I been put through this?’ ” she said. “But it has made me better as a person and stronger.”

Rough beginnings

Ashley Helmold was born in Atlanta. It wasn’t long before the medical challenges began.

At 8 months old, she contracted strep pneumococcal bacterial meningitis, a potentially deadly condition in which a bacteria infects the fluid surrounding the spine and brain.

For nearly six weeks, she fought for her life in the hospital’s intensive care unit. Her kidneys failed. Twice, her life was saved by a respirator when her breathing shut down.

By the time she recovered, she had lost half her kidney function. Doctors also found a mass on her adrenal gland, but she was too fragile for that to be explored further.

Six months later, the Helmold family had relocated to Vancouver. Ashley underwent tests to see what that mass was on her adrenal gland.

More bad news. Ashley had Stage IV Neuroblastoma cancer. In her first 14 months, she had encountered two deadly conditions.

Ashley’s adrenal gland was removed. She underwent chemotherapy and a bone-marrow transplant at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital.

But even at that young age, Ashley showed a fighter’s spirit.

“When she was fighting cancer, the nurses called her Smashley,” her mother Debbie Helmold said. “She was always tough and always determined.”

The perfect sport, then a setback

After beating cancer, Ashley’s life was normal other than daily injections of growth hormone to replace what her adrenal gland would have produced.

A ball of constant energy, Ashley began tumbling classes which eventually evolved into gymnastics. It was a perfect sport for a high-energy girl who was on the small side physically.

“She could not sit still,” Debbie Helmold said. “She’d watch her brothers’ baseball games and we’d always have to keep her active with workbooks or something.”

Ashley advanced in the sport, reaching Level 8 before undergoing surgery in the sixth grade to fix a bone-tendon issue in her feet.

But that was nothing compared to what struck her as she entered the eighth grade.

She began to suffer extreme fatigue and nausea. She couldn’t keep up with the physical demands of competitive gymnastics, so she gave up the sport she loved.

The next four years were torture for Ashley and her parents. The nausea and fatigue got worse. She visited dozens of doctors around the Northwest looking for answers to why she couldn’t keep food down. Twice, she was hospitalized because she had lost so much weight. In December of 2014, a tube was surgically implanted in her belly so nutrients could be delivered directly to her stomach.

With her parents at their wits end and Ashley unable to keep up in school, the Helmolds visited the Mayo Clinic in January 2015.

There, she was diagnosed with Dysautonomia of her gastrointestinal system and borderline Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome. In layman’s terms, those are conditions where the nervous system fails to regulate and control the functions of an organ or other bodily function.

It’s a chronic condition and Ashley was advised to lead as normal of a life as possible. She would have to use her feeding tube for a couple hours every night. Exercise and eliminating stress were recommended to boost her well-being.

Back in the gym

With a firm diagnosis and a plan to move forward despite her medical issues, Ashley set her sights on getting back in the gym.

She had missed too much school to graduate on time, so she entered her fifth year at La Center High with a goal of having her best year yet.

She began taking private gymnastics lessons and successfully petitioned the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association to allow her to compete as a fifth-year senior.

Like most small schools, La Center doesn’t have a gymnastics team. So she arranged a co-op agreement to practice and compete with the Camas High School team.

The Papermakers are coached by Carol Willson, who had been Ashley’s instructor as a child. Plus, she knew Camas gymnasts Caleigh Lofstead and Emily Karkanen from her days in youth gymnastics.

Ashley’s physical and emotional well-being rose faster than a vaulter hitting a springboard.

“I feel boosted up emotionally,” she said. “Not having to stay home all the time and just staying active. I’ve gained weight and even gained muscle.”

There are still challenges, though. Ashley wears a back brace not for her spine, but to hold and protect the feeding tube’s port in her stomach.

Her father, Tom, shook his head in disbelief when explaining how his daughter competes in events such as the uneven bars.

“Having that button here and bringing the bar even close to it, I don’t know how she does it,” he said during a recent practice a Vancouver Elite Gymnastics Academy.

To keep her energy up between events, Ashley snacks on chocolate or whatever she can stomach during competitions.

Ultimate triumph

Ashley was already a winner before the regional meet last weekend in Des Moines. Instead of competing with Camas, she represented La Center as a Class 1A gymnast, but she didn’t have a “state meet or bust” mentality.

“I knew I was going to try my best but I didn’t expect to make it to state.” she said. “Just to have the experience to do gymnastics again just makes me really happy.”

But Ashley was on point that day. She qualified for state in the balance beam and vault, claiming one of 17 spots up for grabs in each event for Districts 3 and 4.

When she learned she had qualified, she found her parents.

The tears began to flow.

“We’ve seen so many other tears from Ashley,” Tom Helmold said. “Just to see her have the opportunity to experience tears of joy it was amazing.”

More than anything, Ashley’s triumph represents a vault into her future, where she will confidently balance her physical limitations with her dreams.

For the first time she’s thinking about going away for college. She hopes to one day teach in elementary school.

What will her message be to any of those kids who are facing a challenge?

“Hang in there,” she said. “Life isn’t always going to be bad. Life is going to have its ups and downs and you just have to keep fighting and in the end it will be better.”