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Originally published February 29, 2012 at 10:01 PM | Page modified February 29, 2012 at 10:49 PM

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Success of Woodinville's Ali Forde masks struggle with narcolepsy

The basketball star has battled narcolepsy since her freshman year, and now leads Falcons into the Class 4A state girls basketball tournament in Tacoma.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Girls — Mount Rainier 52, Woodinville 51

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The lights dim, and the eyelids drop.

Ali Forde fights the urge to fall asleep in the film session, but slips away.

For a fine-tuned, high-energy athlete like Forde, it's frustrating. But at times, it's unavoidable — regardless of how much sleep she gets the night before.

Forde, one of the best all-around athletes in Woodinville High School history, suffers from narcolepsy, a sleep disorder that causes frequent daytime sleep attacks. There is no known cure, but medication is finally helping Forde manage the condition, which she first experienced in ninth grade.

"It's a lot more difficult than people can imagine," she said. "Sometimes, I get really tired."

Forde will be wide awake when the third-ranked Falcons (22-2) take the floor this week in the Class 4A state girls basketball tournament at the Tacoma Dome. Her symptoms usually surface during periods of physical inactivity.

The 6-foot-1 senior center, also a star volleyball player, has been turning heads since her sophomore year. This week is her chance to cap a four-year battle with the elusive condition and erase the frustration of a brutal state tournament last year by leading the Falcons to a championship.

"This is it," Forde said.

Her athleticism has been widely chronicled. The daughter of Brian Forde, former Washington State and New Orleans Saints linebacker, Ali arrived as a sophomore at Woodinville, a three-year high school. Her senior brother, Maxx, soon began to be overshadowed by his sibling, despite his own decorated football career. Maxx now plays at Idaho, one reason Ali — short for Alexx — is headed there to compete in both basketball and volleyball.

But Ali Forde's determination hasn't been as well known. Her struggles with narcolepsy are not commonly known outside her circle of family, friends and teammates. The disorder has caused her embarrassment at times, like when one of her 10th-grade teachers sent her to the office after she fell asleep in class.

"Ali has a lot of pride in her schoolwork," her mother, Tracey, said. "She was humiliated. She begged me to get out of that class."

A 4.0 student, one of the early hints was when her grades began to suffer slightly. There were other clues: Her dreams intensified, another symptom of the disorder, which can be difficult to diagnose.

At first, Ali was tested for epilepsy. A neurologist chastised her parents for her involvement in volleyball, basketball and, at the time, track and field.

"You've got her doing way too many things," he said. "Of course she's tired."

Finally, at the end of her ninth-grade year, Ali entered a 24-hour sleep study. After a full night's rest, she fell asleep during regular intervals the following day, reaching REM (rapid eye movement) within 90 seconds, far quicker than normal.

"It was super-scary," she said.

Finally, though, she and her parents had a diagnosis — although it took a while to find an effective medication. Her sophomore year, a doctor suggested she was depressed, which she immediately scoffed at.

"I'm really a happy person," Ali said. "I struggled that year with schoolwork. I was disappointed in myself. I felt I let myself down and my mom down."

Worried? Yes. Depressed? Hardly.

"Ali is very gregarious," her mom said. "She has a big, huge heart. She doesn't meet a stranger who can't become a friend, which is kind of scary as a mom. You feel like you know her the first time you meet her."

Teammate Alexis McLeod made fast friends with her after transferring from Inglemoor last season.

"She's one of the funniest people you can be around, and she has tons of energy," she said.

Except when she sits still in the dark.

"When the lights go out, she usually falls asleep right away," McLeod said.

Her film-session naps sometimes turn comical. Once last season, coach Scott Bullock asked her a question after she had nodded off. Teammate Melissa Gilkey responded, using her best Ali Forde impression, and Bullock bought it. Another time, Ali started singing in her sleep, and took some good-natured teasing after she woke up.

"She just joked about it," McLeod said. "She just shrugs it off. She doesn't let her sleep disorder get the best of her."

Last season, the state tournament got the best of Forde as she fouled out of one game, nearly suffered a concussion in another and got a cut on her cheek that required stitches as the Falcons finished 1-2 to place fifth.

"It was brutal," Forde said. "I felt like I didn't really do what I was supposed to do. I let my team down."

Narcolepsy has forced her to change her career goal — she once dreamed of being a pilot but now wants to own her own bakery — but Forde won't let it define her. Or beat her.

"She is obviously a gifted athlete, but her best gifts are her competitiveness, her determination and ultimately her will to win," Bullock said. "She's a competitor. As a coach, you just always love to have kids who show up and battle and don't want to lose, and I love that about Ali Forde."

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