If the story of wrestler Samantha Ochoa was only a sports story, it would be a terrific one.
The solidly built junior didn’t get into the sport until she started high school at North Valley Military Institute, where she first learned the basics. When she transferred to San Fernando High, she went out for the wrestling team. “I started coming to their off-season practices — they were like a family here,” she said. “It was something I really wanted to be a part of.”
Last year Ochoa had become good enough to place third in the 152-pound girls division of the Los Angeles City Section individual championship tournament. This season, she is currently ranked No. 1 in the 160-pound division (although she constantly competes at a lower weight), and is expected to be a strong contender at this year’s City individual championships to be held Feb. 15-16 at Los Angeles Mission College.
But there’s more to it than that.
Ochoa, 16, is grappling with another opponent. One that never leaves her alone and can strike without warning, causing havoc to her body. It’s tried to steal her vision, her coordination, and her energy.
It’s tried to steal more than that.
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is believed to affect more than 2.3 million people worldwide, according to the National MS Society. Research, the organization’s website states, has demonstrated that MS occurs in most ethnic groups, including African Americans, Asians and Latinos, but is most common amongst Caucasians of northern European ancestry.
Ochoa learned last year she had MS the hard way — by becoming very sick. After some extensive hospitalization to get the disease under control, she still requires taking the medication Rituximab — a chemo drug — intravenously every six months. That means a 6-8 hour day in the hospital. Her next scheduled visit is in April.
But it doesn’t stop her.
Wrestling Coach Fernando Gonzalez admitted he considered asking Ochoa to take this season off. He was impressed enough by her development and dedication to know he wanted Ochoa to be as healthy as possible, even if that meant waiting for her senior year.
“When she first came out, she was [still] learning,” Gonzalez said. “We try to get a lot of new girls to come out. You have them do basic cardio and tumbling to see what their bodies can do. It took awhile for her to find her place. It’s not like I first saw her and go ‘this girl’s phenomenal.’
“But you could see her getting better and better. Then at one point you think ‘this girl’s got potential.’ She was working hard, doing everything we asked her to do. She picked up things quickly. Her growth was steady. By the end of the season she took third in a weight class that had some experienced girls.”
Ochoa, however, wanted to continue. Gonzalez relented, and she has become one of the best in the City Section.
“I couldn’t have scripted this, to be honest,” Gonzalez said. “She’s handling it, facing it head on. Then she comes to me with ideas on how to raise awareness [about MS]. I tell her ‘sure, whatever we can do to promote it.’ For her having that mindset at her age, thinking of others while she’s battling through this, it just amazes me.”
Ochoa’s parents — mom Yvonne Valles, who works for a mortgage company and dad Ronnie Ochoa, who works for Caltrans — also marvel at their daughter’s fortitude. Because like Gonzalez, Valles had reservations about her daughter wrestling this season.
“It was tough,” Valles said. “But after she came back to practice, I told her to listen to her body.”
The sport does not get in the way of her Magnet class schedule (“she’s getting all A’s,” relates Ronnie Ochoa, proudly), and the San Fernando coaches monitor Ochoa to make sure she doesn’t become overheated or too fatigued.
Then they watch her wrestle and shake their heads.
“She’s just out there,” Gonzalez said. “You forget (about the illness) unless she raises her hand and pulls herself out. But I see her doing everything just like everybody else. And she’s so strong. She can overpower girls. We call it ‘beasting people.’”
Cause of MS is Unknown
A basic description of MS: it is a chronic disease that can affect among other things the brain, the spinal cord, and the optic nerve. The cause is still unknown, and it can be difficult to diagnose because there is no one single test that can identify the disease.
Symptoms can include moderate to severe fatigue, acute pain, double vision and/or vision loss, balance and coordination disruption, and mood swings. While not contagious or directly inherited — the average person in the United States has about one in 750 (or .1 percent) chance of developing MS — females are 2 to 3 times more affected compared to males. The disease is usually diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50 years old.
Currently there is no cure, although science has developed treatments that can slow or prevent relapses that can worsen the condition.
Ochoa first realized something was wrong last year after the wrestling season, when numbness started spreading throughout her body.
“I would wash my hands and couldn’t feel the [hot water]. I would burn myself,” she said.
“She told me of the numbness in her hands,” Valles added. “Then she showed me her writing — it was like the writing of a 1-year-old, just scribble.”
Valles took Ochoa to an urgent care clinic in Mission Hills. After an exam, where blood was drawn, Ochoa was told she had a high blood-sugar count and needed to change her diet.
“At that point I was concerned because kids cut weight for wrestling,” Valles said. “I thought maybe she was cutting weight the wrong way.”
The family — which includes two other daughters, Sandy and Savanna, and a son, Sebastian — had planned a trip to Cancun, Mexico for the spring break, and decided their oldest daughter was healthy enough to go. But three days into their vacation, Ochoa became more and more ill, first losing her coordination, and then constantly vomiting. “I just couldn’t get anything into my system,” Ochoa said.
As soon as they returned to their Sylmar home, Ochoa’s vision diminished. She underwent a three-hour MRI exam at a hospital in Tarzana. It was then the family was told doctors thought Ochoa had MS. The MS diagnosis was confirmed at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles.
Valles was particularly rocked by the news. She had been diagnosed with the disease three years ago, and has to take a steroid medication from time to time to control potential flareups. But her daughter’s symptoms were nothing like hers, which have included massive headaches and weakness.
“I was in shock. And scared,” Valles said. “I did not have a clue because, again, we did not have the same symptoms. We started seeing her body losing sensations — her legs were giving up, her vision, her torso. She couldn’t walk. I had to do everything for her.”
Doctors first attempted a lumbar puncture, then steroids. But the disease was advancing too quickly. “At one point I didn’t think they could stop it,” Valles said, tearing up.
It was finally decided to have Ochoa undergo a process known as plasmapheresis, where blood is removed from her body, then separated from the plasma where the diseased and infected cells are housed. “Kinda like dialysis,” Ochoa said. And doctors also started the Rituximab treatment.
It took a five-week stay at Children’s Hospital, which involved physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy, but Ochoa was able to recover.
She eventually returned to school last spring.
And returned to wrestling this year.
“It’s what I love,” she said.
Like all parents, Ronnie Ochoa wishes his oldest daughter didn’t have to go through this — and still go through this.
“It’s been pretty tough,” the father said. “The only thing I can do is be there. There’s nothing we can change, yet. We hope one day there is a cure. But right now it’s like they just create treatments and they test things out to see what works.”
He’s convinced wrestling has helped his daughter.
“It is her passion. I didn’t think she would stay with it — she didn’t fit the [wrestling] profile — but she loves it. And she is wrestling girls 10-12 pounds heavier. God gave her this disease because she can handle it. But it’s hard. You read the body language, you know when she’s had a long day.”
Ochoa said the experience has taught her an important lesson.
“Be humble, and value everything you have. Because you may not have it,” she said. “And being in the [Children’s] hospital, the floor above me was all cancer patients. I would see kids younger than me struggling with things a lot harder. For them to do what they do is amazing.”
Ochoa plans on raising money for the National MS Society with her mom at a couple of sponsored spin class workouts at the Get Sweat gym in San Fernando on March 23. People who sign up for the classes donate money to ride.
Ochoa still has to monitor her health, and work at not feeling defeated by her circumstances.
“Sometimes I want to say I have [beaten it]. And sometimes it gets the better of me,” Ochoa said.
Like all the upcoming City wrestling competitors, Ochoa wants to win her weight class, or again place in the top three at the City meet, which would give her a berth in the state tournament, and to place there as well.
One thing she does not have to worry about. Whatever the results of the City tournament and hopefully the state tournament, it will not determine or define her as a champion.
Because Samantha Ochoa has already proven that she’s much more than that.