Yale’s Alyssa Zupon Earns ECAC Hockey’s Mandi Schwartz Award

Alyssa Zupon and ECAC Hockey commissioner Steve Hagwell with the Mandi Schwartz Student-Athlete of the Year Award. (photo courtesy ECAC Hockey)
Alyssa Zupon and ECAC Hockey commissioner Steve Hagwell with the Mandi Schwartz Student-Athlete of the Year Award. (photo courtesy ECAC Hockey)

Bulldog Captain Honored as Top Student-Athlete in Conference

NEW HAVEN, Conn. – Yale women's ice hockey captain Alyssa Zupon (Basking Ridge, N.J.) was part of the last class of Bulldogs who had the chance to skate with Mandi Schwartz '10 (1988-2011). Zupon and her fellow seniors were freshmen when Mandi, during a brief period of remission in her battle with cancer, returned to Yale in 2010 and practiced with the team for several months before relapsing. On Friday night, at ECAC Hockey's annual awards banquet, Zupon's Yale career came full circle when she was named the winner of the conference's award named in Mandi's honor. Zupon was selected based on her work both on and off the ice, as the award recognizes the conference's top student-athlete.

"This award means so much to me, especially because it is in honor of someone who personally inspired me so profoundly," said Zupon. "Mandi was a role model for me, and she showed me the importance of being a complete person, striving to be the best you can be in all areas of your life, and embracing every opportunity. She has influenced the student-athlete I've become, and so I owe this award to her and the positive impact she has made on my life."

ECAC Hockey's Mandi Schwartz Student-Athlete of the Year Award goes to a student-athlete who excels in the classroom, participated in at least 50 percent of the team's games, and demonstrates leadership on and off the ice. Each team can select one student-athlete as a finalist, and a committee of administrators had the task of selecting the winner.

"Alyssa has been a fantastic teammate, player and captain for us," said Yale head coach Joakim Flygh. "She deserves this recognition in so many ways, and all of us are proud of her and all her accomplishments. Alyssa will continue to do great things in the future and it has been a privilege to coach her and been around her on a daily basis. We will miss her and the senior class immensely next year. Alyssa is a bright young woman who is a great role model for many young aspiring hockey players."

The award was known as the ECAC Hockey Student-Athlete of the Year Award prior to being named in Mandi's memory in 2012, on what would have been her 24th birthday (Feb. 3). It was first presented in 2007. Yale has had two other players win the award -- Jackee Snikeris '11 in 2011 and Aleca Hughes '12 in 2012 -- and three other finalist selections besides Hughes and Snikeris (Kelsey Johnson '07 in 2007 and Danielle Kozlowski '09 twice, in 2008 and 2009).

Mandi, who battled acute myeloid leukemia for more than two years, was a three-time ECAC Hockey All-Academic Team selection whose gentle nature and selfless approach to life endeared her to everyone she met. A native of Wilcox, Sask., she attended Athol Murray College of Notre Dame prior to Yale.

On Dec. 8, 2008 -- just four days after extending her streak of consecutive games played to 73, picking up an assist in Yale's 4-1 win over Brown at Ingalls Rink -- Mandi was diagnosed with cancer. She returned home to Saskatchewan for treatment. On Jan. 8, 2010, after five rounds of strong chemotherapy and 130 days in the hospital put her in remission, she returned to Yale for the spring semester. She was planning to return to playing hockey in the 2010-11 season, but in April of 2010 she learned that the cancer had returned. Even after receiving a stem cell transplant using umbilical cord blood at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle in the fall of 2010, the cancer returned. After her final relapse, she returned home to Canada and passed away on Apr. 3, 2011.

Even while she was sick, Mandi took the time to follow the progress of the teams she played for. At one point she wrote to her high school team:

"I encourage you to enjoy every time that you step on the ice. Don't forget to play for the fun of the game. Every time you go for a skate is a chance to make yourself better. Do what you love most and have the time of your life."

Zupon, a senior forward, has started a variety of community service initiatives during her time at Yale. That includes co-founding the charity "Hope for Tomorrow" for earthquake and tsunami relief in Japan. She is also working on a variety of ways to help patients with serious illnesses, particularly brain tumors. She co-founded the "Bulldog PAWS" (Pediatric Alliance With Student-athletes) program at Yale that pairs pediatric patients from Yale-New Haven Hospital with Yale athletic teams to serve as a support group. She is also currently researching the genetic causes of brain tumors. Zupon is pursuing a molecular, cellular and developmental biology BS intensive degree. The intensive track involves what amounts to doing a Master's level research project. She plans to go to medical school but hopes to spend next year working at a clinic in Indonesia.

Zupon's work on Hope for Tomorrow began after traveling to see the area in Japan devastated by the earthquake and tsunami in 2011. She and her mother, Shizuko, decided to do something to help those affected by the disaster. Along with a Japanese friend of her mother's, they founded "Hope for Tomorrow" as a registered non-profit organization with the goal of helping high school students in particular. To date, Hope for Tomorrow has raised approximately $150,000 and arranged for in-kind donations of items such as computers to assist in recovery efforts for Japanese high schools.

More importantly, the organization has found ways to help Japanese students hold on to their hopes and see a meaningful future full of opportunities. This was a component that Zupon added; the initial intent of the program was to provide financial support and equipment donations, but she recognized an opportunity to connect with the students on a personal level. Zupon, who is fluent in Japanese, is now the chairperson of North America Student Affairs for Hope for Tomorrow. One of her principal initiatives has been establishing a program to interact with the Japanese students. She and other volunteers in the United States engage in weekly reading and conversational groups with the students, connecting via Skype and the donated computers.

 "The purpose of these interactions is to improve their English conversation skills and, ultimately, assure them that they are not alone and that they can still achieve their dreams despite hardship," said Zupon.

The program is already making a difference for the Japanese students.

"My dream was to work in the international field and travel to many different countries in the world," wrote one Hope for Tomorrow participant, Misa Ito. "But to tell you the truth, ever since the earthquake, I had given up my dream. We were in a chaotic situation and could not think of pursuing my dream.  I even almost forgot how much I liked English. Ever since I joined the Skype session, and started to talk to Alyssa, I realized how fun it is to communicate with a person in a foreign country: how fascinating to know a different culture … Because of Alyssa, I started to feel again that I can achieve my dream if I work very hard." 

Zupon has expanded the program, recruiting other Yale students and training them to engage with the Japanese students. Hope for Tomorrow also recently started sponsoring visits to the United States for students from Japan. Along with The Harvey School in Westchester, N.Y., Hope for Tomorrow sponsored two-week home stays and American school experiences for four Japanese students in the spring of 2012. Zupon coordinated a visit to Yale for those students, and she hopes to start a similar program with her own high school (The Pingry School in Martinsville, N.J.). This spring Horace Mann School in New York will join the program as well. Hope for Tomorrow will sponsor a visit to America (and Yale, through Zupon) for six more students at the end of March. She has been tutoring some of these students for the past year.

In addition to her international relief efforts, Zupon has also been active on a local level. She has taken a multi-faceted approach to helping patients with serious illnesses while at Yale. In her sophomore year she co-founded the "Bulldog PAWS" program with the guidance of her faculty advisor, former Yale golfer David Gimbel '03. That program pairs pediatric patients from Yale-New Haven Hospital with Yale varsity athletic teams.  Working closely with a former Yale football player who is now an assistant professor of neurosurgery (Dr. Michael DiLuna '98 MD '03), the Yale women's ice hockey team was the first team to "adopt" a patient -- a local girl named Giana, who was recovering from surgery for a brain tumor performed by Dr. DiLuna.

"Giana gained 23 big sisters and we gained an incredible, inspirational little sister," said Zupon.

Giana is now in her third year as a member of the team thanks to the program Zupon started.

"We have a relationship outside of hockey that can be described as 'big sister/little sister'," said Giana. "We are always in contact through phone calls, emails and texting. I can always talk to Alyssa about school and my illness and she always has an ear ready to listen. She comes to many school activities such as chorus concerts to cheer me on."

Giana, who has raised money for the Make-a-Wish Foundation of Connecticut and spoken at several public events about her illness to raise awareness, credits Zupon as an inspiration:

"I have watched several of my teammates participate in such efforts for various reasons and I know my involvement in wanting to help others has stemmed from the examples like those set by Alyssa Zupon."

Bulldog PAWS has expanded to include seven Yale teams, with a waiting list of more teams awaiting patients. Zupon is responsible for recruiting new teams, facilitating each "adoption" and planning events to aid the bonding between teams and patients. She also acts as a liaison between the hospital and the Yale Athletics community and maintains the program's Facebook page.

Zupon's work to help those with serious illnesses goes well beyond Bulldog PAWS; her medical research is aimed at finding ways to improve treatments for all patients with brain tumors. She spent this past summer in New Haven working as a laboratory associate in Yale-New Haven Hospital's neurosurgery department exploring genetic influences on cerebrovascular disease. She also spent the summer of 2011 in New Haven with that same department. She shadowed Dr. DiLuna, attended medical rounds and surgeries, and is listed as a contributing author for an article in the Journal of Neurosurgery that she worked on during that time ("Congenital os odontoideum arising from the secondary ossification center without prior fracture").

Zupon's academic and research work earned her the opportunity to work in the lab of Murat Gunel, the Nixdorff-German Professor of Neurosurgery at Yale. This prestigious lab, which is part of Yale's neurogenetics program, centers on gene discovery through cutting-edge molecular genetics, moving on to molecular biology and functional analysis of disease in order to design diagnostics and non-invasive novel treatments. Zupon is currently focusing on studying ependymomas, the third-most common pediatric brain tumor. Brain tumors are the leading cause of cancer death in children, and her research into the genetic causes of ependymomas will ultimately help create more effective therapies and improve the survival of patients. As part of her project, she is extracting DNA from blood and tumor samples and performing bioinformatical analysis of the results to find mutations of interest. By the end of this spring, she hopes to have found and confirmed mutations that may be responsible for the growth of these tumors.  

Zupon has also been involved in two annual events that her team holds to help those with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses. The Bulldogs work on these events in memory of Mandi, who passed away in April of 2011 after battling leukemia for more than two years. The Bulldogs play a "White Out for Mandi" fundraiser game at Ingalls Rink each season to raise money for the Mandi Schwartz Foundation, the charity started by Hughes. And every spring, Yale hosts the Mandi Schwartz Marrow Donor Registration Drive at Yale. The drives have added more than 3,000 potential marrow donors to the Be The Match registry, and located at least 14 genetic matches for patients with life-threatening illnesses who are in need of transplants. As a result of their efforts, the Yale women's ice hockey team earned the New Haven Register's "Sports Person of the Year" award for 2011.

As a member of the team, Zupon also participates in a number of community service events organized by the Yale Athletics Department, including the annual "Skate with the Players" at Ingalls Rink. Her team also takes part in the annual Relay for Life for the American Cancer Society (and raised the most money out of any group at Yale last year -- $6,040), the Holiday Gift Giving Drive and Yale Youth Days (where student-athletes play sports with children from nearby schools each fall and spring).

Zupon has also spent her summers doing things such as working as a counselor at the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in New York for children with cancer and serious blood diseases (2010) and working as a resident assistant at Fellowship Village Nursing Facility (2009). From 2008 to 2011 she participated in five fundraising or site building projects with Habitat for Humanity, and from 2007 to 2011 she participated in multiple events for Special Olympics in New Haven and the Boys & Girls Club in Newark, N.J.

At Yale, Zupon has been appointed to the NCAA Student Athlete Advisory Committee and was selected to head the Community Service sub-committee. This is her second season with that group.

Zupon's work in the classroom has also been exceptional. She has a 3.55 cumulative grade-point average while taking classes in areas such as anthropology, biochemistry, calculus, cellular biology, molecular biology, inorganic chemistry, organic chemistry, economics, English, genetics, Japanese, physics, political science, psychology and statistics. She is a three-time ECAC Hockey All-Academic Team selection.

Zupon has been a significant contributor on the ice throughout her Yale career. One of the team's best defensive forwards, she battled through injury to appear in all 118 games of her career. She has totaled 38 career points -- tops among all players on Yale's roster for 2012-13 -- on 15 goals and 23 assists.

In addition to winning the Mandi Schwartz Award, Zupon has also been named a finalist for the 2013 BNY Mellon Wealth Management Hockey Humanitarian Award, which will be announced Apr. 12. She was a semifinalist for the 2013 Coach Wooden Citizenship Cup.

Report by Sam Rubin '95 (sam.rubin@yale.edu), Yale Sports Publicity

Be the first to know what's going on with the Bulldogs -- Follow @YaleAthletics on Twitter, become a fan of Yale Athletics on Facebook!