PUTTING GRACE BACK TOGETHER: Former 3-sport varsity athlete recovers from traumatic brain injury, takes up golf

Richard Smith
West Valley Preps

Nearly everything Grace De La Torre attempted came naturally to her — and she was a teen that made a habit of attempting many athletic and academic pursuits.

She was a three-sport varsity athlete as a freshman at Willow Canyon, scoring six goals for a playoff team and winning her first attempt at a steeplechase — about five minutes after she learned how to run a steeplechase. Grace was a straight A student.

She and her twin sister, Olivia, played top level club soccer and with their freshman year almost over, traveled to Flagstaff for a routine Under 18-level tournament. Though it is a cliche, the phrase, ‘her life never would be the same,’ certainly applies.

Early in the second half on May 20, 2017, Grace was poised to score a goal. Family, friends and other observers helped Grace piece together what happened that afternoon.

“I had a breakaway and the goalie came after me and knocked me to the ground instead of the ball. It definitely was an attack toward me. It was on Astro Turf which had cement right underneath it. It was a very thin layer of fake grass and them cement and dirt. I got tackled to the ground and hit my head. I went unconscious for a couple seconds at most. One of the parents on the sideline was a nurse. She instantly saw what was going on and called 911 because of the force I hit with and how I was acting,” Grace De La Torre said. “There’s the one day I was in the hospital, then I got back to Surprise. For three days it’s just normal concussion symptoms. On the third day something happened in the night. I wake up and I don’t recognize myself — I’ve never seen this face before. I started having trouble speaking almost immediately they took me to (Phoenix Children’s Hospital). I was in the hospital for about two weeks. We did all those tests and it got worse and worse. They told my mom, ‘she may never recover.’”

Diagnosed with a severe traumatic brain injury, she was discharged after a couple weeks and went through of outpatient vision, vestibular, cognitive and speech therapy five days a week for about three months at PCH.

Doctors gave her two years to recover and said if there were not improvements to come back.When she was released Grace could not speak properly, walk, hold a pencil or pick up a fork. Her friends were strangers. Heck, she was a stranger to the sixth grader in her memory.

Less than 18 months later, Grace is in her second semester back at Willow Canyon. She can walk, talk and learn new concepts. Last spring, she ran track and this week, her first season of competitive golf ends.

“It was the worst concussion they’d ever seen. To heal this fast and this much is pretty awesome they say. There are definitely days I feel just like I did on May 20. But I stay positive as much as I can,” Grace De La Torre said. “I pretty much do everything I’m used to. I get happy when I’m stable on my feet in the morning. If I can remember something from five minutes ago, I take that as a huge accomplishment.”

With some minor exceptions, the only thing missing is the majority of her memory. And many of her happiest remaining memories — basically from ages 9 to 12 — were tied to soccer.

Her mother, Cathleen, said Grace and Olivia were a constant blur of motion. They competed in youth triathlons and youth marathons, stakeboarded and tried basketball and tennis.

Mostly, though, they played soccer all over the western United States from age 4.

“Soccer was our lives. The twins started playing wen they were 4 years old and quickly moved up the ranks. They moved to club as soon as they were old enough and every Saturday, Sunday and holiday it was tournaments and games. We traveled all over the country. It’s just what we did,” Cathleen De La Torre said.

Olivia excelled at defense while Grace scored goals, forging more of a bond instead of a competitive relationship, Grace said. Upon arriving at Willow Canyon, soccer tryouts for a team fresh off a state quarterfinal appearance was a bit nerve wracking.

The sisters made it and saw heavy playing time. Grace said she was proud of her ability to meet the challenge and was helped by really good teammates.

Then, on that fateful day, the opposing goalkeeper hit her “with force that is unreal and landed on her,” Cathleen De La Torre said.

Grace said she wanted to keep playing. But the quick thinking of the nurse saved De La Torre from more brain swelling and bleeding — and severe, lasting damage.

“I actually tried to play and asked coaches to put me in. The last thing I remember was sirens and being put in an ambulance,” Grace said.

In a Flagstaff emergency room, an MRI and other tests revealed a concussion. The family was told to make sure she stayed out of the light and rested, and to follow up at PCH.

“I was very relaxed and felt like I was floating. Then I remember everything hitting me and I woke up. The ceiling had clouds painted on it and my first thought was, ‘Oh no,’” Grace said.

She felt well enough to go back for Olivia’s games the next day, wearing sunglasses and sitting under an umbrella.The De La Torres returned to the Valley and set up an appointment. But on Wednesday, May 24, 2017 everything changed.

Even when her suddenly severe condition subsided, odd quirks surfaced.

“We were there a few days and she started to draw, which was amazing. She’d only draw with her left hand even though she’s totally right handed. It was just pictures,” Cathleen said. “She would write words and they were only in Spanish. She speaks predominantly English but was using Spanish words that were pretty sure she didn’t know.”

She also spoke mostly Spanish and remained confused about why she looked so much older in a mirror.

And one of the few common threads this younger version of her had with the teen she now was had been cut.

“I could finally watch a soccer game without crying. I was told I could never play soccer again. No one could have told me anything worse at that time. I did had memories from age 9 to sixth grade. During that point in my life, soccer was the biggest part. That was the main thing that stayed with me,” Grace said.

She returned to school in January, although she did not want to go back. Talking walking was very mechanical at first. Everyone knew her and she only recognized her sister.

Grace started to remember minor things about places around her. While many parents are leery of social media, some features helped.

“In a crazy way, social media is the best thing because she could connect with these people and regrow these people. When Snapchat or whatever social media shows what happened two years ago or a year ago she can say, ‘Oh look, I was at this restaurant with these people,’” Cathleen said. “For us, it’s kind of been a huge life saver.”

Her mother began to notice simple breakthroughs, like the first time Grace ran upstairs and back downstairs. A few months later she dressed herself for prom, though Grace did not go to the dance because the lights and the noise were too much.

Grace said she felt better when she remembered going to the mall with her sister the week before. The whole family was put at ease during a trip to California.

“She went to a friend’s house and she didn’t remember the friend but she walked in and started to cry a happy cry. She was so happy but she couldn’t understand why. The doctor said she would have an emotional response before remembering something. So the fact she was having this emotional response to this really good friend was amazing,” Cathleen said.

Cathleen said Olivia has been Grace’s biggest cheerleader and supporter, and given her space when she needed it. Grace ran track her sophomore year. At first, her results were hard to accept.

“I don’t know how I did that. I was not walking three months before. It was hard because I was successful my freshman year and it was hard to lose,” Grace said. “Everyone tried to tell me to keep perspective when I was defeated. I didn’t think about it — I was in a wheelchair while these girls were training.”

Willow Canyon junior Grace De La Torre poses for a photograph on Oct. 3 at Willow Canyon High School in Surprise. De La Torre just finished her first season of golf. [Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps]
Grace learned returning to cross country would be tough. After the concussion she lost her internal temperature gauge, and was always freezing even while jogging and wearing a sweater in the Arizona summer.

She said she did not want to sit around and be sad. The family decided golf was safe and still competitive. It is also the first activity she’s attempted that Olivia has not.

“Because Grace was so competitive, she had to do something. We were looking at the schedule and badminton and golf were the two choices,” Cathleen said. “I coach tennis with Coach Jason (Stutenroth) who also coaches golf and he’s a great guy. I happened to be at the store and ran into this gentleman who was also buying screening for the outside. He said he’s retired in Sun City Grand and gives golf lessons. I told him about Grace and said he said to come over. She improved every time she went out there.”

Grace said it was interesting to learn something new and not be naturally gifted at it. And it was good to be part of a team.

“She’s shown a great deal of improvement on the course. However, she’s a real great teammate and someone that always is smiling and making the other players laugh. Golf is such a stressful game mentally, and she keeps the team loose and entertained,” Stutenroth said.

Cathleen said her daughter never lost her humorous take on life.

“She’s still funny and a great kid but she definitely is different. She kind of had to shift her entire way of thinking. Maybe the jokes are a bit of a coping mechanism,” Cathleen said.

Grace will take a break during soccer season, and may manage team. She has accepted the end of her soccer career, and done so with humor.

“My head is still swollen, so if I get hit like that again, it’ll be lifetime,” Grace said. “I like walking and talking, so I’ll stay on the sidelines.”

Both Olivia and her brother, Pedro, still play club soccer on weekends.

Grace admitted she worries about Olivia getting a concussion, or worse. But she knows how she felt when she couldn’t play and definitely does not want her sister to stop playing.

“Even on weekends when her brother and sister are playing, she’ll get a ball and kick it as hard as she can into the goal. That muscle memory is still there. She still has that wherewithal to juggle and kick a ball,” Cathleen De La Torre said.

Grace said she may try tennis, if Cathleen is okay with it, or go back to track.

Cathleen said as a freshman, UCLA was Grace’s dream school — and she could excel academically there and walk on the soccer team. Now her mother just wants her to be able to attend college.

Grace said she constantly strives to keep positive because mental health challenges are associated with concussions.

“There are times when I think I would have folded, but she just fights through. This could be very different,” Cathleen said.

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