You could say Alyza Szajna ’99 is the Lance Armstrong of TCNJ.
Armstrong battled cancer and won the Tour de France seven times.
Since her 2005 multiple sclerosis diagnosis, Szajna has participated each year in the “MS150 City to Shore,” a 150-mile bike ride from Woodcrest Station, NJ, to Ocean City, NJ.
There is just one little difference between the two inspiring bicyclists.
“I do not like bike riding that much,” admits Szajna. “I never liked riding fast; I have always been nervous about falling.” Luckily for her, that hasn’t happened yet.
Szajna’s ability to keep racing is what makes her story so inspirational.
MS is a chronic disease of the central nervous system that interrupts the flow of information between brain and body. At its most severe, the disease can lead to paralysis and loss of vision, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
Szjana’s health concerns began in June 2005. She was at a friend’s birthday party when she she realized she could not feel her feet being tickled. After undergoing several tests, she was diagnosed later that year.
According to Michael Opacki ’99, Szjana’s friend since freshman orientation at the College, MS “never slowed Alyza down.”
“In college, she was the same as she is now: fun-loving, intelligent, and driven,” Opacki said. “Alyza never let any symptoms affect her lifestyle.”
Bryan Haldeman, Szajna’s boyfriend, said people who meet Szjana are surprised to learn she has MS.
“No one knows unless she tells them, and even then sometimes people are in disbelief,” said Haldeman. “Alyza’s determination to remain as healthy as possible and [her] being proactive in seeking a treatment has provided her with much better results than people diagnosed in the past. A lot of people wouldn’t have the discipline to keep up her exercise regiment.”
In addition to her 150-mile bike rides, that regiment also included participating in a “Hops to Hops” bike ride/mud run in Lambertville, NJ, and Newtown Square, PA. Szajna said she trains for rides and runs “by doing anything and everything except biking and running,” which she said “bore (her) to tears.” She has twice completed the strenuous exercise DVD series “P90X” and “Insanity,” billed by its promoters as “possibly the hardest fitness program ever put on DVD.”
“My neurologist calls me an athlete,” said Szanja. “There may be some things I can’t do, but there are many more things I can do that people my age can’t,” she says.
She has had to make some concessions to the illness, she said, including walking up and down stairs more slowly and giving up playing soccer. But with the help of medication and a healthy lifestyle, she keeps her symptoms at bay.
“Before I started taking medication for the fatigue, I felt like I had the flu all the time, without the stuffy nose,” said Szajna. “The limited sensation goes from my toes all the way to the middle of my calves. I can wiggle my toes and move my feet, but I have trouble feeling things with my skin. Picture trying to feel (or) do things while wearing 10 pairs of knee socks.”
According to Szajna, one of the best ways other people can contribute to the MS cause is by learning more about the disease and “understanding how symptoms and treatments vary from person to person.”
She has personally found that positive-thinking helps her deal with her diagnosis.
“I’ve always been a positive person. For me, it is better to focus on the present and the future than the past. It’s also better to focus on what can be done instead of what can’t be done,” said Szajna.