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Ward Melville's Christian Powell recovers from stroke to become star on track

Ward Melville's Christian Powell takes some laps around

Ward Melville's Christian Powell takes some laps around the track during practice, Saturday, June 5, 2021, at Ward Melville. Credit: George A Faella

Winter was coming, only four days away, but a snowstorm had left a new white blanket over Long Island. So Christian Powell went sledding the afternoon of Dec. 17. Just a 16-year-old kid from East Setauket having some fun with eight friends at a nearby golf course.

But the fun didn’t last. Something was wrong. He began feeling very dizzy during the rides. He had a headache. He couldn’t keep his balance. The thing was, he hadn’t hit his head.

"There wasn’t any big impact or anything," he said. "I thought I had a concussion, but I didn’t have any idea where or how I would’ve gotten it. I kind of just thought, if it doesn’t go away by tomorrow, then I’ll say something about it."

Nothing had gone away by the next day. His mother, Sue, took the Ward Melville junior to the emergency room at Stony Brook. The shocking news came next:

Christian Powell had suffered a stroke.

"My mom was very, very upset when she found out," he said. "I didn’t really understand what it meant at the time, but I wasn’t that nervous or upset as she was."

He spent four nights in the hospital, two in ICU. Headaches, balance and vision problems followed him home. But he returned to school after Christmas break, and the symptoms eventually went away. He then decided in April to give up lacrosse at Ward Melville and focus on track, and he has excelled in his first spring on the run. This has become a comeback story.

"I think it’s been a very good and successful season," Powell said. "I’m very happy with how I’m doing."

The debate about whether to leave lacrosse and concentrate on track had been ongoing in his mind before the stroke. He ran cross country and winter track and participated in JV lacrosse as a freshman, then repeated that as a sophomore, although there were only four practices before the pandemic wiped out his lacrosse season.

His cross country and winter track coach, Ryan DeLuca, had been recruiting him for the spring track team since freshman year. Last summer, DeLuca tried again and thought he "sparked him."

"Your times are really, really good," DeLuca told him. "You have the potential to continue improving and be a track scholarship athlete.

"Listen, you’re a super-competitive person, and being competitive and being as athletic as you are, that’s a dangerous combination to have as a track athlete."

Powell, who’s 6-2 and 175 pounds, said he was "so excited" heading toward winter track and sports starting up again and then "disappointed" that the stroke took that away.

DeLuca said he was "terrified" upon hearing of the stroke. But Powell, who just takes aspirin daily, returned for cross country in March and April. He also returned to participate as a close defenseman with his Long Island Empire travel lacrosse team for its final few "winter" practices in April.

"He’s a super kid, athletic," said Harold Drumm, his Empire coach who’s also the Mount Sinai boys lacrosse coach. "I was obviously a little concerned to begin with, but he looked great."

But Drumm said Powell then told him that he was unsure about continuing with Empire and that he wasn’t going to go out for lacrosse anymore at Ward Melville, where he was a defenseman and long stick midfielder.

"He definitely could have played at the next level," said Jay Negus, Ward Melville’s varsity boys lacrosse coach.

Powell plans to play four or five tournaments with Empire this summer. He figures that will be it for the sport.

The reason behind the stroke is still unknown. But the stroke settled his debate. Powell called it "the final straw" for leaving lacrosse after having to sit out and recover. He admitted the possibility of head contact resulting in another problem "certainly had something to do with it."

There was more to it.

"I just really like track," Powell said.

DeLuca’s pitches also were "very convincing," according to Powell.

Still, it was a tough call.

"I just knew if I decided to do this, I didn’t think there would be an option of going back to lacrosse because I knew that I would just fall in love with track," Powell said. "And I have so many friends on lacrosse. I have been playing with them my entire life.

"So leaving them and joining a new team and everything and leaving the sport that I’ve been playing, really, my entire life, was a really hard decision."

His mom and dad, Richard, let him make it himself.

"As a parent and him playing lacrosse since kindergarten, and the families and the people we were associated with, I’m not going to lie, [I was] extremely heartbroken and, like, lots of tears," Sue said. "I just have to respect my son’s decision that this is what he wanted to do."

Powell won seven times combined in the 200- and 400-meter dashes in dual meets, and five times with the 4x100 and 4x400 relay teams. The now 17-year-old entered June ranked tied for fifth by time in Suffolk I in the 200 and eighth in the 400.

"I think him being a talented runner also helped make it easier of a transition," Negus said.

Powell’s grandfather, Ross Saddlemire, died from COVID-19 complications last spring. He was Sue’s dad. Saddlemire also had a stroke in 2020. Powell’s recovery hasn’t calmed his mother’s nerves.

"I am always constantly in the back of my head worried that one day this could happen again, and it could be a worse scenario," she said.

Her son also can’t outrun the thought of another stroke. It isn’t overwhelming, though.

"I wouldn’t say it’s something I worry about, but it’s definitely something that’s in the back of my mind that I think about sometimes," Powell said. "But it’s not something that I actively fear."

“I thought I had a concussion, but I didn’t have any idea where or how I would’ve gotten it.”

— Christian Powell

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