This time last year, aspiring professional ballerina Athena Nikolakopulos watched her ballet school's production of "The Nutcracker" from the sidelines.
"It was hard," said the 15-year-old Palos Verdes Estates resident. "I went in my wheelchair. I went and watched almost every single show because I really wanted to be part of it."
But the Palos Verdes High School sophomore couldn't be.
A bout with rare Guillain-Barre syndrome had seen to that.
Athena was left partially paralyzed, which required hospitalization and then left her confined to a wheelchair for weeks.
The autoimmune disorder, which afflicts about one in 100,000 people, attacks the body's nervous system. No one knows what causes the disorder and there is no cure.
"She was weak to the point she couldn't move," said her Redondo Beach pediatrician, Dr. Rita Tenenbaum, who started seeing her in October 2011 after Athena had left the hospital. "She could not walk."
Yet last weekend, Athena starred as the snow queen in the Pacific Dance Center production of "The Nutcracker" at Lawndale's Centinela Valley Center for the Arts.
Ballet schools often bring in a professional dancer for the coveted and demanding role.
Not this time.
"No one thought that a year later she would be dancing a lead role and be as good as anyone at that level," said Vera Ninkovic, a ballet teacher at the Peninsula School of Performing Arts who teaches Athena.
"It's a miracle," she added. "It's (due to) her sheer determination and strength of character."
The timing of the disorder's onset was particularly cruel.
Just weeks earlier, Athena, who was 13 at the time, had won a scholarship to the prestigious Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, D.C.
The opportunity to train at the Kirov is a huge honor; it is considered an initial step to a professional dancing career.
"She's incredibly talented," said Linden McPherson, owner of Pacific Dance Center.
Yet that opportunity was suddenly ripped from her.
What started as a stomachache gradually got worse and worse, leaving Athena in debilitating pain.
"I couldn't even move," she recalled, adding she was unable to even squeeze a tube of toothpaste. "I couldn't even walk because it hurt so much."
Gradually, the disorder improved.
Physical therapy became her biggest challenge; Athena had to relearn how to use her muscles.
Which is where McPherson, who also teaches Pilates, came in.
An intensive rehabilitation regime of exercise and physical therapy helped Athena regain strength and mobility.
By January, she was dancing again.
"She pushed herself," Tenenbaum said. "She really danced through the recovery. That's how it looked. She was very graceful. It brought everybody to tears. She was absolutely amazing. She really did it all."
Athena's young age and peak fitness level made her a prime candidate to recover from the disorder, Tenenbaum said.
But it was her single-mindedness and determination to recover in the pursuit of her life's dream that has set her apart, Ninkovic said.
"There's something to be said as a dancer to having your body taken from you at a young age and then really appreciating what she has," Ninkovic said. "She has the perspective that many other dancers wouldn't have. She's working with an even greater vigor than most would. She releases exactly how precious it is."
Remnants of the disorder remain; Athena still tires easily and can sleep for long stretches, although not the 18 hours a day she once did.
But watching her on stage last weekend belied her physical condition of just a year ago, McPherson said.
"She was beautiful, exquisite and very delighted when she came off stage," McPherson said. "She had accomplished the goal she set for herself."
Bigger challenges lie ahead.
Athena has said she would like another chance to audition for the Kirov.
And then there's her dream of becoming a professional ballet dancer.
But this holiday season is about redemption for Athena.
Last year she was a recovering patient; this year she was snow queen.
"I was extremely grateful, it was a great experience and I absolutely loved it," she said. "A year ago I couldn't see this happening."
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