Longo is taking the fall quarter off at Washington to focus on her health. Her goal is to return to the soccer field for the Huskies. “It’s definitely easier said than done, but I’m going to do what it takes to get back out there."
Claudia Longo was a few months from graduating from Issaquah High School, eagerly awaiting her next step as a University of Washington soccer player. She was a high-school All-American and had two state titles to her credit, as well as a Husky scholarship she had locked up as a sophomore.
And then, in her words, “My world turned upside down.” Last March, after a series of puzzling symptoms – fatigue, numbness, a tingling sensation in her legs – led her to the doctor, Longo received the devastating diagnosis: She had multiple sclerosis.
“I feel you can go one of two ways,’’ she said. “You can have it define your life, or you can transcend. I’m going for the second part.”
In that quest, Longo is succeeding magnificently. While taking the fall quarter off at Washington to focus on her health, Longo assumed duties at Issaquah High as a volunteer assistant coach for the girls team. It was a huge success; the Eagles made it to the state semifinals before falling last weekend to eventual champion (and nearby rival) Skyline. It gave Longo an outlet for the soccer passion that has welled within her since she was a youngster.
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“Obviously, I want to be out there and playing, but being able to coach and do what I love has been fun,” she said.
Longo’s goal is to eventually return to the soccer field for the Huskies. UW coach Lesle Gallimore, who calls Longo a “skillful, tough, central midfielder,” has assured her that she will always have a spot on the team, in some capacity.
“Through recruiting Claudia, watching what kind of person and student she is and how much she wanted to be at UW and be part of the program, nothing but positive comes from having her around,” Gallimore said.
With MS, nothing is certain. The website of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society states, “MS is an unpredictable, often disabling disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the flow of information within the brain, and between the brain and body.”
Outcomes can vary dramatically from person to person, but it’s possible to live productive – and athletic – lives with MS. A California woman named Cheryl Hile has run 44 marathons since her diagnosis. Lori Schneider climbed Mount Everest. Josh Harding played goalie in the NHL, and Chris Wright had a stint in the NBA.
Longo raves about her doctor, Mariko Kita at Seattle’s Virginia Mason, who told her: “Yeah, it sucks, but we’re going to get through this, and there’s ways to treat it.”
Added Longo, “Not cure it, but definitely treat it. And hopefully I can still be able to live the life I want.”
But Longo is well aware there are no guarantees with MS. The medication she took intravenously the past six months led to nausea, headaches and other side effects, so she is about to try a new one. It helps that both her parents are physicians, and her two sisters are pursuing medical careers. They are trusted sounding boards and advocates on medical issues.
“I’ve talked to so many people that have it, and it’s just different for everyone,” she said. “What I might have, someone else might not have. It’s hard to know what my future might look like, and I think that’s the scariest part.”
But Longo is throwing herself into her present with grace and courage. Initially, she tried to participate in the Huskies’ summer workouts, flying to Florida with the team and even moving into the dorms in August. But eventually, Longo realized her body was not up to the rigors. The best course, she determined, was to take the fall quarter off, though she has been taking an online nutrition course.
“When I got diagnosed, I said, ‘OK, I’m going to still try to play soccer,’ ” Longo said. “I think at that time, I was a little naïve and ignorant to what my new reality was going to look like.”
During her hiatus, Longo attended Issaquah High’s girls soccer games. At one game she found herself dismayed by the team’s performance, particularly the energy on the sideline. She asked coach Kyle Tatro if she could address the team at halftime.
“I kind of ripped them,” she recalled with a smile. “I said, ‘Listen, soccer is about passion, it’s about heart, it’s about intensity.’ That was missing from this game. I kind of went off.”
Said senior goalkeeper Chloe Lang: “It was kind of our wake-up moment and the motivational push we needed.”
That put the thought in Longo’s head that maybe she could help the team, which was in the first year under Tatro after the departure of legendary coach Tom Bunnell. Bunnell won five state titles – two with Longo on the squad, before stepping down.
“I’m the little bit of Tom that was missing from the season,” she said.
With assistant Jaci Belur as the liaison, the idea of Longo coaching was presented to Tatro, who jumped at having Longo on the sideline.
“That enthusiasm and energy is welcome, and her soccer knowledge and insights about winning are a good thing to have around the program,” Tatro said. “Obviously, she has a good connection with the girls. At times I’d forget she’s just one year removed from the team, she’s so mature.”
Athletic director Luke Ande signed off instantly on the idea of having Longo join the staff.
“I said, ‘This is the best idea I’ve heard in a long time,’ ” Ande recalled. “It was an instant, ‘Yes – let’s get the paperwork done.’ “
Ande knew Longo well from her playing days, and calls her “a kid who’s always super positive, a great leader, and someone that other kids could lean on when things were not going great.”
In late October, the Issaquah team decided to honor Longo with a “Kick MS with Claudia” fundraiser during a game against Lake Stevens. It was the brainchild of Lang, but all the players, their parents as well as the Issaquah community jumped in to make the event a rousing success, with more than $8,000 raised.
“I thought it was a cool way to support Claudia, show our love and gratitude, and bring awareness to MS in general,” Lang said.
Gallimore surprised Longo by bringing the Husky soccer team to the game, which moved her tremendously.
“I think that was the one time in the night I was uncontrollably crying,” she said. “It’s says a lot about the program. I can’t say enough about how supportive coach Gallimore has been.”
Longo is registered for classes at UW for the winter quarter and hopes to attend.
“But with this thing, I’ve learned I can’t even make plans,” she said.
Longo’s aspiration is to become a pediatric oncologist (her mom is a pediatrician, and her father a cardiologist). With the challenges of MS, that won’t be easy, nor will her goal of playing collegiate soccer. But she is determined to make both happen.
“It’s definitely easier said than done, but I’m going to do what it takes to get back out there,” Longo said. “Soccer has been my outlet. It’s been what I love to do and a big part of who I am.”
Friends and colleagues marvel at Longo’s positive outlook despite the daunting realities of dealing with MS.
“She’s always caring for other people, not getting down on herself, not letting the diagnosis get the better of her,’’ Lang said. “She’s definitely a fighter.”
“She’s a very determined young woman,” Tatro added. “There’s no way anything will ever stop her from achieving whatever she wants. Such passion and energy for life is pretty cool.”
Longo admits she has her down days, when the disease and its ravages have thrown her for a loop. At first she tried to hide her tears to put on a strong face for family and friends, but lately she has been more open about letting down her guard.
“It’s just trying to find the balance of allowing myself to be upset, but the next day, ‘All right, this is my reality, we’ve got to keep going, moving forward, facing forward.’
“I think the big aspirations and the big goals I have is what keeps me going. Whether I reach them, who knows, but the thought of going after them is what keeps me going.”
That’s Claudia Longo, transcending.
NOTE: This story has been corrected to reflect that Tom Bunnell won five state titles at Issaquah, not four as originally reported.