By RAY DUCKLER
Monitor staff – Monday, March 27, 2017
First, Ellie Coe conquered her fears, then she nearly conquered the world.
The young woman from Hopkinton won a bronze medal in snowshoeing at the Special Olympics World Winter Games last week in Austria, shortly after bipolar and anxiety disorders nearly got the best of her.
Her breathing grew heavy. Her body trembled.
“I thought I couldn’t do it,” Coe, 19, said Monday in an interview from her home in Hopkinton. “I was crying. It was very difficult.”
Difficult because Coe has chromosome deletion syndrome, which means she has autism, bipolar disorder and a learning disability. It means depression can ambush her, to the point where she’s tried to commit suicide more than once.
It means adjusting to something new translates into a monumental task, and it means that she had to leave Hopkinton High School, with its hundreds of students and endless hallways, and transfer to the Contoocook School, which has a student body of 20.
One thing it hasn’t meant, however, is this: No matter how terrified Coe might have been in Austria, in a strange hotel without her parents, with strangers speaking strange languages all around her, with the best Special Olympians in the world there to compete against her, Coe regained her composure, stared down her fears without blinking, then trampled over them as though they were a trail beneath her snowshoes.
Nearly 3,000 athletes from more than 100 countries competed.
It led to a fire and police department-led parade on Sunday, the day she landed after her two-week experience of a lifetime. It also added another medal to her stable of medals, which hang in her room like chains in a jewelry chest.
Coe wants to be an author and a motivational speaker, and she’s already written 100 pages of an autobiography that she hopes will open doors for others.
She wants to end the stigma attached to mental illness. She wants to be part of a new era, the one that people like former State Supreme Court chief justice John Broderick are heavily invested in. The two have corresponded.
“She’s inspirational to people because they see how hard it is to get through her day,” said her mother, Kim Story, a child health educator at Concord Hospital.
Story said a teacher in the Hopkinton School District submitted Coe’s name to The Ellen DeGeneres Show, hoping the famous host’s staff would recognize what it means to push back against such terrifying demons.
Ellen would find a good story there, a story about a girl who’s used the Special Olympics program for the past few years to help her establish an identity and generate confidence.
Ask Coe how many medals she’s won and she can’t answer. Instead, she takes you into her bedroom, past the Justin Bieber posters, to count the hardware hanging on her wall.
There are nine gold medals, each heavy, each solid, each representing the state’s Special Olympics for snowshoeing, track, basketball and soccer. There are seven silver and seven bronze medals, and there’s also a gold medal for basketball, earned in the National Special Olympics three years ago in New Jersey.
But then you ask about her fears, what’s going on inside someone with her chromosomal disorder, and Coe’s story takes an awful turn.
Trish Walton teaches at Maple Street School and was Coe’s second-grade teacher at the Harold Martin School. Coe hadn’t been diagnosed yet when Walton was her teacher.
“I saw a very confused, angry little girl,” Walton told me by phone. “And she has struggled off and on with that.”
During the past year or so, things got worse. School had grown hard for Coe, for no particular reason.
“I was having a hard time,” She told me. “I was depressed and manic. I was having a hard time at school, and I would come home and be impulsive.”
Translation: Coe began to overdose on her medication “because it was too hard and I wanted to die.”
She spent time at the New Hampshire Hospital, and said she tried more than once to kill herself.
“She came from a dark place,” Story said. “Nothing was working. She had anxiety and she tried to hurt herself, and the school was not able to provide a calm atmosphere.”
Then things changed, as they sometimes do, abruptly, in the bizarre world of depression and bipolar disorder. The family bought a golden retriever named Apollo, who is now an integral part Coe’s life, adding a soothing, needed element.
Coe began using her box of coping mechanisms, a wicker basket with stress balls for squeezing, a deck of playing cards to place in sequential order, headphones to block out noise, and words of wisdom that remind Coe to close her eyes, inhale deeply, wrap her arms around herself, push the air out and remind herself that she is centered, enclosed in a bubble full of love and calmness.
Add counseling from Riverbend Community Mental Health and, presto, you’ve got an Olympic athlete whose past success earned her a berth on the USA team – one of just two athletes chosen from New Hampshire – and a Special Olympics-funded trip to Austria.
“Special Olympics has given her an athletic outlet,” Walton said. “It’s been hard, and she’s been brave, and this last year has been a spectacular change.”
Still, shortly after Coe left, there was more work to be done, especially considering that her parents couldn’t go to Austria with her because of work commitments, not to mention a hefty price tag.
Then came a long flight, different hotel rooms, a change in roommates, homesickness, the unknown and the stiffest competition she’d ever faced, all of which melted together with Coe’s emotions to create a gap in her defenses.
Coe wanted to go home. A call to Story, though, and a hug later from her coach solved that crisis, and the 19-year-old Olympian promptly went out and ran the third leg of the 4×100 snowshoe relay event.
She won a bronze medal in world competition, leading her to tell me, “The past year has been amazing. I’ve grown a lot as a person.”
A friend picked her up at Logan Airport on Sunday and brought her to a Concord Park and Ride, where her parents brought her home.
There, to her surprise, police and fire engine lights flashed, people lined the streets waving and folks worshipping at the First Congregational Church interrupted their service to lend their support as she slowly moved past.
Coe stood tall through an open-roofed Jeep, waving an American flag, shocked by the reception through the downtown centers of Contoocook and Hopkinton.
“I love my life,” Coe told her mother. “I love my life.”