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Veteran, cancer survivor from South Boston competes in military Warrior Games

Alanna Devlin Ball and her husband, James Ball, posed together at the Department of Defense Warrior Games in August.Courtesy of Alanna Devlin Ball

She could swim before she could walk. When she splashed around in the ocean, people would turn their beach chairs away from the water, anxious over the sight of such a young child playing in the choppy waves, her parents recalled.

Growing up in South Boston, Alanna Devlin Ball started swimming at the YMCA at 6 months old, swam competitively throughout her childhood, and went on to serve in the Navy.

Nearly four years ago, while working as the head of the logistics department for SEAL Team TWO in Virginia Beach, Va., Ball began to have vertigo and excruciating pains in her head, she said. When she was deployed to Germany, the headaches persisted.

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An MRI revealed a tumor in the right side of her brain, Ball, 37, recalled in a recent interview.

“When I came home, our team doc ordered bloodwork and an MRI. The MRI came back and I had a tumor right here — a mass — and everything kind of dominoed after that,” Ball said.

She and her husband, James Ball, 36, had just gotten married after meeting while on duty at the Pentagon. Suddenly, their life together was at risk.

“Man, I finally found the love of my life and now she could possibly be taken from me,” he said. “It was a dark feeling really because the type of cancer she had, most people don’t recover from that.”

The couple moved from Virginia to her parents’ home in Milton so she could undergo treatment at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. She had surgery to remove the tumor on April 1, 2019, and went through radiation and low-dose chemotherapy to keep the cancer from spreading, she said.

That month, she was medically discharged from the military because she was deemed to no longer be “worldwide deployable,” even though she was no longer ill, Ball said.

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After serving in the Navy for about 12 years, it was a crushing blow. But she had something exciting on the horizon — training to compete in the Department of Defense Warrior Games.

The Warrior Games is an annual sports competition for wounded, ill, and injured active-duty and veteran US military service members.

In 2020, the coordinator for the US Special Operations Command’s Warrior Care Program — which helps service members in the aftermath of a wound, illness, or injury — reached out to Ball and told her she should enroll in the games’ selection camp, she said.

Ball was selected to compete in three categories — swimming, powerlifting, and indoor rowing.

The games were postponed for two years because of the pandemic, but she kept training. In August, she finally got her chance to compete at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando.

Ball competed in swimming, winning multiple medals at the Warrior Games.Courtesy of Alanna Devlin Ball

“She was so intense,” recalled her mother, Mary Devlin. “Her husband was calling her Michael Phelps. She had the ear plugs in when she was walking around the deck.”

After surviving cancer, it was a sweet moment of triumph. Ball won gold medals in the 50-meter freestyle, 100-meter freestyle, 50-meter breaststroke, 200-meter mixed relay, and 50-meter backstroke event, according to her father, Kevin Devlin.

Ball also won a silver medal in powerlifting, competing alongside service members who had lost arms and legs, an incredibly moving sight for her and her family, she said.

“I think a lot of people don’t understand what it looks like because they see it in movies and they see it sporadically on CNN. But l think it’s important for people to know how much people have sacrificed for this country so we can do what we want to do,” Ball said. “My mom has never seen anything like that. She was in tears. I was just incredibly grateful to be there.”

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Ball won a silver medal in women's powerlifting at the Warrior Games, according to her father, Kevin Devlin.Courtesy of Alanna Devlin Ball

Her husband, an active Navy service member and competitive bodybuilder, sees the games as a testament to the incredible willpower of the competitors.

“They all have their individual stories, [competing] keeps them going and inspired versus just sitting on the couch and feeling sorry for themselves,” James said.

Since she lost a lot of muscle during her cancer treatment, Ball has been working to build it back up, she said. Although she gets fatigued more quickly than she did before, she counts her blessings.

“I’m incredibly grateful that I’m able to train and do whatever I want to do, essentially,” Ball said. “Right now, I train five to six days a week, just focusing on just building more strength and swimming, because I’m going to be competing in the games next year.”


Bailey Allen can be reached at bailey.allen@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @baileyaallen.