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Bulldogs Conquer “Tough Mudder” as Fundraiser for Myotonic Dystrophy Foundation

Jessie Accurso, Ona McConnell and Maddy Sharp.
Jessie Accurso, Ona McConnell and Maddy Sharp.

Accurso, McConnell and Sharp Continue Work Started by "Get a Grip" Campaign

NEW HAVEN, Conn. – Three members of Yale's Ivy League champion field hockey team now officially qualify as "Tough Mudders" on behalf of a good cause. Rising sophomore forward Jessie Accurso (Jamison, Pa./Central Bucks South), rising senior goalkeeper Ona McConnell (London, England/American School) and rising senior forward Maddy Sharp (San Diego, Calif./La Jolla) spent Mother's Day at the "Tough Mudder" challenge in Pocono Manor, Pa., battling obstacles such as mud, fire, ice water, 10,000 volts of electricity, 12-foot walls and underground tunnels. They used the event to raise funds for the Myotonic Dystrophy Foundation, finishing with more than $1,300 in donations for their efforts. McConnell was diagnosed with myotonic dystrophy, the most common form of muscular dystrophy, during her freshman year at Yale.

With tributes to Yale Field Hockey and the Myotonic Dystrophy Foundation written on their bodies -- along with the words "Get After It" on their backs -- the trio worked together to complete the 12-mile obstacle course, billed as "probably the toughest event on the planet". Designed by the British Special Forces, it tests all-around strength, stamina and camaraderie. There are 25-30 challenging obstacles in each Tough Mudder course, including many that require teamwork to overcome. Roughly 15-20% of those competing do not complete the course.

Ever since McConnell was diagnosed with myotonic dystrophy, the Bulldogs have held annual "Get a Grip" fundraisers in which supporters pledge donations based on the number of goals the team scores each season. The first "Get a Grip" campaign, in 2010, raised more than $50,000. The 2012 campaign is scheduled to kick off in September.

While raising funds for the Myotonic Dystrophy Foundation, the Bulldogs have also been breaking records -- they scored a school-record 69 goals last year en route to winning a share of the Ivy League title for the first time since 1980.

Shortly after being diagnosed with myotonic dystrophy (or DM, for dystrophia myotonica), McConnell became a board member for the Myotonic Dystrophy Foundation. The most common of the nine forms of muscular dystrophy, DM is a rare genetic disorder that can cause problems with many systems in the body. Muscle issues are often, although not always, one of the first complaints of adult patients, characterized by the following:

  • muscle weakness, most commonly seen in the arms, face, neck and often legs
  • progressive muscle wasting (atrophy)
  • stiffness and difficulty relaxing a muscle (myotonia)

However, classifying myotonic dystrophy simply as a muscle disorder is misleading because of the range of systems that can be affected. The severity of symptoms seen and the range of systems affected can vary greatly between patients, even in the same family. In addition to muscle problems, issues with respiratory function, heart abnormalities, cataracts and the gastrointestinal tract are often seen. However, an affected person does not typically exhibit all, or even most, of the possible symptoms. Often, the disorder is mild and only minor muscle weakness or cataracts are seen late in life. At the opposite end of the spectrum, life-threatening neuromuscular, cardiac and pulmonary complications can occur in the most severe cases when children are born with the congenital form of the disorder.

There is currently no cure for myotonic dystrophy.

Despite the physical challenges that her condition presents, McConnell remains on the field hockey team and has twice earned Yale's Amanda Walton Award, "given by the Yale players and coaching staff to that team member who demonstrates the ability to confront challenges, displaying the courage to overcome them, while inspiring teammates with her work ethic and unselfish attitude."

The Myotonic Dystrophy Foundation is a non-profit, 501(c)(3) organization founded by families living with myotonic dystrophy. Through education, advocacy and research, MDF is committed to establishing a voice and a face for this disorder. The MDF works in tandem with medical and scientific leaders to mobilize resources in order to help affected individuals, their families and medical professionals understand this complex disorder and to develop treatments and ultimately a cure for this disease.

The MDF created a special donation campaign for the Tough Mudder event under the name "Yalies Against Myotonic Dystrophy." 

 Report by Sam Rubin '95 (, Yale Sports Publicity