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Country Day star has great vision despite eye condition

Vision, it has been said, is one of the most important attributes a top athlete can possess. There are legendary stories out there about how baseball great Ted Williams could read the label on a spinning record or about a certain top tennis player who could tell within a fraction of an inch whether a ball was in or out. And when evaluating top basketball players, it is often said that such players have excellent court vision.

But a few years back, Alexis Samuels may not have been able to see the basket, not to mention teammates slashing toward the hoop or a defender about to cut in front of a pass.

Samuels, a 5-foot, 8-inch sophomore shooting guard for La Jolla Country Day’s girls basketball team, was diagnosed with a rare eye condition called Ocular Myasthenia Gravis at the age of 4.

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The condition caused Samuels’ eyelids to droop and her eyes to move in different directions, resulting in severe double vision. Medication helped improve that, but she also had her peripheral vision severely limited and suffered other related problems, from partial paralysis of the muscles in her face to a shift in her facial midline that caused a speech impediment and difficulty chewing.

“She has gone through a lot and overcome a lot of things,” Samuels’ mother, Amy Olasehinde, said.

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Ten years after her original diagnosis, Samuels is doing much better. She speaks clearly and confidently, and while her vision bothers her enough that she must regularly rest her eyes during class time, it hasn’t kept her from pursuing her dreams on the basketball court.

“I’m just so proud of her,” Olasehinde said. “She has overcome a lot, and this situation has never been easy on us. I don’t know that I ever considered her playing basketball, and for her to be doing it so well and at such a high level is really amazing to me.”

Samuels has helped the Torreys, perennial San Diego Section championship and state championship contenders, to a 6-1 record through the team’s Christmas break.

As a youngster, she played the piano, and her physical outlets were limited to ballet and cheerleading. Allowing her to play a contact sport was something her mother never considered.

“I always watched the NBA and really loved it,” Samuels said. “My mom was worried about me playing basketball because it was a very tough, impact sport.”

But Samuels started playing recreational ball in sixth grade and moved on to club basketball. When she went to a Nike basketball camp hosted by La Jolla Country Day Head Basketball Coach Terri Bamford at La Jolla Country Day, she knew she wanted to attend the school and play for the legendary coach. Making the team was no easy task in a program with such a storied tradition.

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Bamford said she’s thrilled to have a player of Samuels’ caliber on her team, no matter what obstacles she might have to overcome.

Samuels is a quick and instinctive defender, and her outside shooting is the best part of her offensive game.

“She’s quick, she’s a great defensive player, and she’s got a really nice jump shot,” Bamford said. “She’s a great kid to coach, and always encouraging her teammates. She’s a great kid.

“She works really, really hard and gives us some great minutes.

Everything in basketball is about peripheral vision, and to see what she’s overcome to be able to give our team so much is really impressive.”

Added Olasehinde, “When she started, I was afraid to put her in sports. In 2003, she decided she wanted to play basketball. I knew her limitations and knew how physical the sport was, but even with that, she was able to do it. She really amazed me.

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“She loves it. It’s just great to see her around the other girls and to see that happiness and laughter in her. Nobody would even know that there’s something wrong or something different about her.

“I’m happy and proud, because she’s always setting goals for herself.”

Samuels, whose mother is a lieutenant in the United States Navy, spent her early years living in Maryland, and said her goal is to earn a basketball scholarship to the University of Maryland. While she won’t let anything stand in her way, she does recognize just how improbable it was a few years ago that she would even consider this dream.

“I’m very proud of myself that I was able to take on this challenge,” Samuels said. “I think if I stay focused on school and do my job on the basketball court, I can achieve that goal.”