How to Fight Chronic Illness Like a Gymnast


woman doing a handstand The #FinalFive is cleaning up in Rio!

As a former competitive gymnast, and mega-fan of all things related to the Olympics, I couldn’t be any happier. As a person who has been really sick lately, it’s a little discouraging to see there are people out there my age and older in the midst of Olympic glory. If you, like me, are feeling a little bummed, try a different mindset. Remember you’re a fighter too.

Generally, I don’t like to think of myself as fighting chronic illness because I recognize that my illness is a part of me, and being at odds with myself is silly. That said, sometimes this life is hard. Sometimes it is a fight, and in these times I fight the only way I know how: like a gymnast. Although I’m no Olympian, the sport I love taught me a lot of valuable things during my formative years. In honor of Team USA, I’m going to share some of the most important lessons gymnastics has to offer for a person with a chronic illness.

When You Fall, Get Back Up!

This is gymnastics (and life) 101. You are going to fall (figuratively, and if you’re like me, literally too). When you do, get back up and keep going like nothing happened. You can take time to review why you fell and work to make things better when it’s all over, but in the moment, the most important thing is to get back up.

Set Goals for Yourself (That Don’t Depend on the Actions of Others)

Our coaches impressed on us that we shouldn’t set score goals because we don’t have control over the judges. Similarly, setting a goal to be pain free would be haphazard. Of course that would be ideal, but I don’t have complete control over whether and how well treatment works. Instead, I set goals I can accomplish. I can choose to eat in a way that supports my optimal health. I can choose to complete my physical therapy exercises. I can work to make sure I remember all of my medication. See what I mean?

You Are Stronger Than You Think You Are. Act Like It.

One of the coolest things I learned from my years as a gymnast is I can do hard things. So can you. It doesn’t mean I should always push myself to do those things if it’s not necessary or is going to come back to bite me later on, but it’s so so helpful to know when I have to do things like medical tests and procedures, or power through something that must be done. I can do it (whatever it may be), and if I so choose, I can even do it with a smile. That’s what gymnasts do.

Believe That (Almost) Nothing Is Impossible

This is a fine line for people with chronic illness or pain, I know. The word “can’t” was not allowed in my gym. We were required to do push-ups every time it came out of our mouths. That’s because you never know what you actually can do until you’ve tried (and tried again, and again, and again). So this is my rule: always try. If it doesn’t work out today, it’s OK, but don’t decide it will never happen. Be like Alice in Wonderland! Some days I believe (and) do six impossible things before breakfast (or at least things which I thought might be impossible that day). On other days I don’t get anything done at all, but I believe I might be able to do them again tomorrow.

Never, Ever Give Up (Never Say Die)

Don’t confuse this one for never rest. Rest is important. Don’t confuse it for not feeling natural emotions (of course you will feel them when you meet adversity). Take time to rest, feel what you need to feel, and then keep on working. Whether it’s working at a new skill in the gym, or working on making progress in the treatment of your chronic illness, don’t give up. Keep reaching for the best possible outcome.

Special thanks for this post goes to all of the coaches whose messages will forever resonate in my heart.


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