By Matt Kane
BLOOMINGTON, MN Anika Paulson found out she has a lot more help than she ever realized in her battle against muscular dystrophy.
The Delano junior, along with her parents, Dan and Melanie, and younger brothers, Jack and Gunnar, expected to walk the MDA Muscle Walk May 2 at Mall of America with a few extended family members and friends, but, when they arrived at the mall around 7 a.m., Anika and the Paulsons found out that family of walkers was going to grow by 11 people.
On all other days during the spring season, those 11 extra walkers are part of Dan Paulson’s Delano High School baseball family. On that Saturday, those ball players and one coach, took off their uniforms and crossed over the chalk line to join the Paulson family at the Muscle Walk.
“I am extremely proud of our Tiger baseball players every day. They handle themselves very well in school, in public, in the dugout, and on the field,” said Dan Paulson, who is in his 16th season as the varsity head coach. “I was never more proud of a group of young men than I was last Saturday.”
The group of ball players included seniors James Otto, Jason McDonald, Brady Miller, Jeff Linna and Sean Campbell; juniors Logan Hoiland, Nate Norman, Jack Gafkjen and Hank Cautin, sophomore Ben Meyers, and assistant varsity coach Jeff Olson.
Tipped off by a friend that there was a surprise waiting for her, Anika was taken aback by who she saw when she entered the mall.
“We walked in the doors and I saw Brady Miller, and I started bawling,” said Anika, who will celebrate her golden birthday Sunday, May 17. “When I first walked in, I cried. They have all been so supportive of me and my family and it meant so much that they were there.
“They didn’t say much, but I know they care a lot about me. The fact that they came and showed their love and support meant so much.”
The ball players were at Mall of America to support Anika in response to Anika supporting them on the ball fields for years.
“It was a big deal for us because she is at every one of our games and she supports us. This was the one big event of the year for her,” said McDonald, a senior outfielder for the Tigers. “She was surprised and it was pretty emotional for her family that we were there. It is a big deal for her to have support from us. She supports us, so we returned the favor.
“She is there through our hard times and good times. She is basically part of the team, so it was a big deal for us and her.”
Watching his baseball family walk in support of his daughter, further reiterated what coach Dan Paulson already knew about his players.
“They got up early, even though they did not have to on a game day, and took time out of their day to walk. Anika was extremely happy and emotional when she walked into the MOA and saw these young men, who were there to honor and support her on this special day for our family,” Dan Paulson wrote in an email. “They are a great group to coach. I would like to thank all of you for raising great kids. I believe I am fortunate to teach and coach in Delano.”
After walking the Muscle Walk, later, that same Saturday night, those players and coaches, Paulson included, put the uniforms back on and crossed back over that white line, and, with Anika and the rest of the Paulsons in the crowd at Delano Municipal Stadium, defeated Breck 7-5.
Facing muscular dystrophy
Anika was diagnosed with Facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy in the spring of 2012, when she was in eighth grade.
Every day, Anika struggles with basic, everyday acts, such as getting up from the ground or chair, climbing steps up or down and she is prone to falling.
A full day of school leaves her exhausted.
Anika played softball through the summer of 2012. At the state tournament that summer was the final time she put on a uniform as a player. Ever since, she has been one of the Tigers’ biggest fans at the courts, ball parks, and hockey rinks around Delano and the entire state of Minnesota, often driving herself since earning a driver’s license.
“She has trained other muscles to take over for the affected muscles and she has refocused her athletic ability into being a great fan of Tiger athletics,” said Dan Paulson of his only daughter.
Anika will enter her third season as the student manager for the Delano volleyball team in the fall, during her senior year. She was a key member of the Tigers’ 2013 team that ran to a second-place finish at the Class AAA state tournament.
She loves being with the team, but wishes she could be in uniform.
“I manage the volleyball team and that is so much fun for me just being part of a team but, at the same time, I want to play so bad. Same with softball,” Anika said Friday, standing outside her dad’s human geography classroom, where she and her classmates were watching “Hotel Rwanda,” a 2004 film about a man accepting and taking on an unforeseen challenge of great magnitude.
Anika’s difficult daily challenge of battling muscular dystrophy is eased a bit by her team of supporters.
“Having all my friends and family support me makes it so much easier, but, at first, it was hard because I didn’t know what muscular dystrophy was I had never heard of it before,” she said. “It has opened my eyes to so many things. You come out a better person.
“I understand it more, now, and things have been made easier through the support of my friends and family. I could not do anything without them.”
Sometimes, they even tote her around like a backpack.
It’s not uncommon to see Anika, literally, riding the back of one of her friends to get up or down a flight of stairs or to simply keep up with a group of friends.
The muscles in Anika’s teenage body may be weak, but the muscles beating in the chests of her friends couldn’t be stronger.