There’s no question that Giovanna Noguera loves sports.
“Ever since I was young, I played sports,” Noguera said. “I played soccer, basketball, softball. I wasn’t very good, but I played. I was also involved in a lot of clubs. I didn’t think much of track.”
But then, as a senior at North Bergen High School, the running bug bit her.
“I fell in love with it,” Noguera said. “I figured that I played soccer and I ran back and forth and up and down, so I could handle the distances. When I graduated high school, my plan was to run in college.”
But fate wasn’t kind to Noguera on two fronts.
One, she first attended Hudson County Community College, which didn’t have sports teams.
But more importantly, she began to face the disease that would unfortunately be with her for the rest of her life.
“I was diagnosed with lupus in May of my senior year of high school,” Noguera said.
Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is more commonly known as just lupus. It’s an autoimmune disease that attacks healthy tissue in a wide variety of locations on the human body. Symptoms can vary from mild to severe. Common symptoms are painful and swollen joints, fever, chest pain, mouth ulcers, rapid hair loss, swollen lymph nodes and glands, fatigue and a red rash most commonly found on the face.
And unfortunately, there is no cure. Lupus affects about 70 per 100,000 people worldwide. Women are more at risk for lupus at a rate of nine times more than men. It usually affects women during the ages of 15 and 45 and people with backgrounds in island nations, as well as China and Africa, are usually more susceptible than Caucasians.
Lupus significantly increases the threat of heart disease, the most common cause of death for lupus sufferers.
Incredibly, Noguera’s mother, Maria Elizabeth, a native of Mexico, died from lupus-related symptoms in 2009. Maria Elizabeth was only 44 years old.
Now, Noguera was forced to face the illness.
“It’s hard to diagnose,” Noguera said. “I was experiencing the same symptoms as my Mom. I had the arthritis in my hands with my hands kept swelling up. I was always extremely exhausted. I was then experiencing it in my feet and hands. I had a gut feeling that I had it. My Dad (Ecuadorian native Klever) was with me when I was getting the diagnosis, but I already knew. I numbed it all out of my head. I said, ‘This is my life.’ I was in denial for a long time.”
Noguera was told by doctors not to exercise, because the stress caused by activities would only lead to flare-ups.
“I refused to believe it,” Noguera said. “I was supposed to do track in college. I was going to do my best to live with it. I wasn’t going to let it define me.”
Noguera began taking a giant influx of medications to try to control the deadly disease.
“That’s all you can do is try to control it,” Noguera said. “Sometimes, it gets bad and I can’t do anything.”
So for two years, Noguera attended Hudson County Community in order to prepare for attending a four-year college. She didn’t run competitively for over two years, but she was determined to run track and cross country when she enrolled at Rutgers-Newark.
“I didn’t want to be treated any differently,” Noguera said. “I wanted to be just like everyone else.”
Rutgers-Newark head cross country and track and field coach Juan Edney was stunned when Noguera approached him and wanted to run, despite having lupus.
“I told her first and foremost that it’s not like high school where you can just go out and run,” Edney said. “But after I met her, she’s so bubbly and so excited. When she pulled me aside and told me she had lupus, I took a step back. But she said that she didn’t want anyone feeling sorry for her. She said, ‘I don’t want you to go easy on me.’ She understood what was going on. She didn’t want people to worry about her all the time. I thought that was admirable.”
Edney didn’t know what to think until he realized Noguera’s work ethic.
“The girl is out there every day, even with lupus,” Edney said. “She doesn’t complain at all. When she does complain, then you know it’s serious and she’s not feeling well. She wants to have a full life. I give her credit. She’s as tough as nails.”
Noguera loves the way the team has adopted her.
“When I’m sitting there in my sweats and doing nothing, I feel like I’m Grandma and I’m taking little Grandma steps to walk,” Noguera said. “I just sit and coach and tell everyone to run faster. Some days are good and some are bad. I’ve developed pain tolerance now and I know when I’m fatigued. Then I have to shut it down. Even though I get super tired, I know I have to get things done.”
As a senior on pace to get her Bachelor’s degree in marketing, Noguera also has an internship that is basically like a full-time job. She works with the marketing team for TrueTV, helping to create advertising and selling advertising. She was recently busy with doing work for Comic-Con, the huge convention for television and movie stars at the Javits Convention Center in New York. Giovanna also does work on Impractical Jokers, TrueTV’s most popular show.
Yes, with lupus and a full credit schedule, Noguera is able to juggle a three-day-a-week, 20-hour internship while running cross country. It’s truly amazing.
“So far, I’ve run every race,” said Noguera, who finished 96th at the New Jersey Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (NJAIAW) Championships in Galloway, N.J. in under 30 minutes (29:52.2 to be exact).
“My Dad, who is amazing, taught me about time management,” Noguera said. “I have to thank him for that. People always laugh when I tell them about all I do, but it’s not that difficult.”
And she thanks the Rutgers-Newark track and cross country teams.
“They are my family,” Noguera said. “When I’m down, they pick me up. Even the ones that graduated, they still keep in touch. We’re like silly little girls, laughing and smiling.”
Noguera never dwells on what fate has dealt her.
“This is my life,” Noguera said. “This is what I have to do. I know that it can get scary and that I have to watch what I do. When I get scared, my teammates know something can happen to me. They’re very respectful of my fears. And Edney’s been like the Dad to all of us. If you do something wrong, he gives you that Dad look.”
Edney just beams when talking about Noguera.
“We could all only hope to grow up like that little girl,” Edney said. “If she doesn’t have a smile on her face, then you know something’s wrong. But she’s always smiling. She’s a joy to be around. Her dedication is off the charts.”
Edney gets a kick out of Noguera’s running style.
“She runs like she’s skipping,” Edney said. “She takes three steps and then skips. She’s a fighter. For her to go out and run 28 (minutes), all you can say is ‘Wow!’ If I had a team full of Giovannas, I’d be the richest coach in the world. She’s just so bubbly and so joyful that it’s amazing.”
Noguera really wouldn’t have it any other way. Of course, she’d rather be healthy, but that’s not an option now.
“It’s all nature to me now,” Noguera said. “I just get out there, start running and the next thing you do, you’re done with the race. And then I just keep going. I might as well. This hasn’t stopped me and I don’t want it to. It sucks. Sometimes I question myself and say, ‘Why me?’ But I’m stopping because of it. No way.”
That’s right. No way, no how.
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com