When the average person thinks of heroism, they might imagine Hercules or Achilles. Some might fail to recognize a person in Verona who exhibits heroism in its finest form. At 4′10” tall and just 80 pounds, Alana Drost has redefined what it means to persevere and demonstrate belief in oneself. Despite repeated challenges, she has overcome them all to become the gold medalist she is now.
Drost was born with Down syndrome, but she hasn’t let that stop her in the slightest. As a toddler, she demonstrated a love of the water and began to swim. Drost became an accomplished swimmer and participated in the Special Olympics. However, in the midst of her freshman year of high school, she began to experience problems with her neck. Her parents undertook a nationwide search for answers. In meetings with some of the best pediatric neurosurgeons in the country, there were disagreements on what path to take. Some claimed that surgery was of the utmost importance, despite its risks. They warned that her condition could lead to paralysis or worse if left untreated. Others believed that the operation was too risky and that they should take no action. The search included doctors from all over the country. Philadelphia, Boston, even a virtual consultation with a doctor in Utah.
After more than a year of searching for the correct solution, the necessary course of action became clear and Drost underwent surgery on May 3, 2021, one day before her 17th birthday. The surgery involved fusing two vertebrae in her neck to a plate in the back of her skull. Upon the completion of the surgery, she and her parents would have to wait one year to know the final results. It was uncertain if Drost would ever be able to pursue her passion for swimming again. Complicating matters further, the Caldwell Community Center, the pool that her Special Olympics team used to practice, closed in February 2020. Her team, the Caldwell Cannons, was indefinitely put on hold.
After six months of anxious waiting, Alana was able to resume all of her activities without restrictions, and after one year, the Drosts finally received news from their daughter’s doctor. He informed them that her vertebrae were fusing. However, she had lost 30% to 40% of the movement in her neck, which had been an understood consequence of surgery.
Despite all these obstacles, Drost began running again, playing sports, and attending camps. She even began to attempt swimming again and started to improve. She joined the Verona High School Swim team and won two more medals in the Special Olympics New Jersey Summer Games, in the 50-meter backstroke and 100-meter freestyle.
A critical moment for Drost was joining the Verona High School swim team; would she be accepted by her neurotypical peers? However, in the VHS swim team she found a team that was overjoyed to welcome another member. Not only did she incur appreciation, but also respect for attending practice after practice, and constantly aiming to improve. This only grew with her return after her surgery. Drost is now a vital element of the team, bolstering the girls 50-yard freestyle in the Bloomfield-West Orange-Verona tri meet.
Many of us may think, “This is too hard” or “I just can’t do it” in challenges that arise in our lives. In such moments, it may be worthwhile to note Drost’s story and how she fought through the mountain of obstacles that were in her way. But to quote Drost herself: “Believe in yourself, and you will be unstoppable.” Perhaps we should all take a lesson from this young lady, who has not only defied the extraordinary odds she has faced but thrived.
(VHS swim team photos courtesy Jayme Lim)