EAST WENATCHEE — Dayna Dickson was meeting new teammates trackside from a wheelchair when she was announced captain of her cross country team.
Naming her a team leader in August was an easy decision for her Eastmont High School coach, Gary Millard. “Her inability to compete has little to do with her leadership and her influence,” he said. “In particular, her attitude is so phenomenal.”
“Kids look to her,” he said. “It’s just kinda the nature of her personality.”
As the oldest of six siblings, Dayna, 17, a senior, could easily be considered a ringleader, like when she anchored a multi-person sled team with her friends, brothers and sisters one Saturday in February 2021.
“It was like a bathtub,” Dayna said of her sled. “It’s what our friends used to pull deer with when they were hunting.” Naturally, the teens piled four high onto the craft before careening down a Squilchuck hillside toward the treeline. As they picked up speed Dayna noticed she had no control over steering or braking and couldn’t roll out over the sled’s high edges and so resigned herself to brace for impact, crashing into a tree.
Immediately, Dayna said her head, “felt like [it] was pushed underwater. Everything was muffled. When I opened my eyes I looked over at my sister and saw she had a stick in her eye and just, like, blood everywhere.” Dayna was aware that she had a bloody nose but largely ignored her own injuries to get help for her sister, 11-year-old Alana, aka “Lonnie.”
“The only thing Lonnie was worried about was getting ice cream!” Dayna said. Once at the ER the doctors were able to remove the object and Alana did not suffer lasting injuries.
On the surface, the crash left Dayna with an extremely dislocated nose, but two successful surgeries later and that injury appears to have been set back to normal.
What the doctors didn’t immediately notice was that she had sustained a concussion. Additionally, this concussion seems to have brought about a common but, for her up until then, dormant medical condition known as postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, or POTS. An individual living with POTS experiences heart rate increases when changing posture which then causes dizziness and fainting.
The sledding accident took place the weekend before the season’s first cross-country contest in February 2021. When she did run she committed to giving it her all, but that time around her 100% effort yielded significantly slower times: she ended up at a 10-minute-per-mile pace or about 25% slower than her average time, but felt like she was exerting her maximum effort. She set her sights on training.
Dayna’s mother, Janelle Dickson, said that, “She used to say she feels the most free when she runs.”
Dayna has been running as fast as she can for as long as she can remember. She loved her first fun runs in elementary school and signed up for running clubs. She started long-distance running when she joined her middle school cross-country team her sixth-grade year where she really started enjoying some competitive success.
The cross-country season after her crash immediately gave way to the track season and Dayna aimed to strengthen herself for competition. She still didn’t improve.
The first time she passed out was during a Halloween party that year.
“I pass out multiple times a week. It used to be multiple times a day but I’ve kind of, like, trained my body to know when I’m going to pass out.” First her vision blurs, eyes aflutter and glazing. Waves of numbness overtake her nerves and eventually she collapses, still conscious but unable to move or even open her eyes.
Doctor visits across many hospitals have transpired since then. She spent the better part of that first season in a wheelchair after repeatedly collapsing during practices. She still uses one often to lighten the load. With her condition, her heart rate spikes soon after standing. She can still drive, still walk but fatigues easily. She checks her heart rate with chest and wrist monitors as part of her routine.
This year she’s stopped running and is cycling instead. Her physicians first recommended a recumbent bike but after a tire blowout and several tears she’s back on top with her mountain bike. On any given practice Dayna can now be seen keeping pace with her teammates doing laps around the track. If she ever runs again, it’ll be a while. Some, like her coach, Millard, think it’s just a matter of time.
“The progress that I’ve seen this year has been ridiculous,” he said. “I think she’ll run again. I think it’ll be sooner than later.”
He’s coached for a long time and says injuries unfortunately come with the territory.
“You gotta breathe positivity to her,” Millard said. “I tell kids a lot when they’re struggling with it, whatever it might be, to say, “I’m good. What? I’m good. What? I’m good.” You know, make ‘em say it.”
That summer after the accident in 2021, Dayna’s mother approached Millard about Dayna’s role on the team and whether or not she’d be a part of it.
“I was like, instantly, ‘Absolutely.’ ”
Millard said Dayna “leads by example, she’s always doing the right thing. Kids like to be around her.” The coach said she sets an “example of doing what she needed to do: getting out the door and training in the offseason, eating right, sleeping right when she should, these sort of things.”
Millard said it’s plain to see how much this team means to her and how it’s killing her not to be able to race; She gets most emotional when she thinks about racing with her friends again, like co-captain and Hannah Mikkelsen. They are both returning captains.
With good support, she found new ways to contribute. “It’s just shocking how positive her demeanor is,” he said.
“I feel the most mentally stable I’ve ever been,” said Dayna. “Kind of ironic.”
“Even in this state I’m not going to stop doing the things that I love doing,” she said. “Even if it’s a bit trickier I’m still going to participate in cross-country because I love it.”
“I love that about her,” adds her mother, Janelle. “She’s pushing the limit.”
Dayna plans on graduating early. After high school, she aspires to study cultural anthropology in Hawaii at her father’s alma mater: BYU–Seaside.