5 Athletes With Chronic Illnesses to Watch for at the Olympics
When the 2018 Winter Olympics kick off in PyeongChang, South Korea, viewers will see hundreds of athletes at the top of their game. What many won’t realize, however, is that some of these athletes are competing for a medal while also fighting a chronic health condition.
Healthy, able-bodied people often see these kinds of stories as inspiring and motivating. And many with chronic illnesses themselves may feel the same way — after all, it can be pretty cool to watch someone with your diagnosis kick butt in their sport, and it may even give you hope for what you can accomplish in your own life (physically or otherwise).
However, it’s also completely normal to feel a bit sad when you watch these athletes. It might remind you of what you aren’t able to do, or what you used to be able to do but can’t anymore. Or, you might hear more “If she can do that, why can’t you?” type comments.
Below, check out five athletes who are dealing with chronic illness to keep an eye on as they compete in PyeongChang, as well as a few things to keep in mind if watching these athletes is hard for you.
1. Alexa Scimeca-Knierim, Pairs Figure Skating
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If you've never known down, you'll never appreciate up. . 4 months ago, it was nearly impossible for me to "get up" out of bed. . 4 months ago, brushing my teeth was more challenging than any long program I'd ever performed. . 4 months ago, when my body was at its weakest, my faith was at its strongest.✝️ . When you're faced with a challenge and you find yourself down–no matter how you might've gotten there–you have always have 2 choices: give up and lay there, or get up and fight for what you want. . Eyes up. Rise up. GET UP! . #NationalGetUpDay
Alexa Scimeca-Knierim met her now-husband, Chris Knierim, on the figure skating circuit and the two began skating as a pair in 2012. They began dating soon after and married in 2016, and will be the only U.S. figure skating pair competing in PyeongChang.
The two had to put their skating career on hold in 2016 when Scimeca-Knierim became ill with a rare gastrointestinal condition she’s called “a series of binding internal issues” that caused episodes of vomiting and extreme weight loss.
“The pain was so severe and significant that sleeping was out of the question,” she told NBC Sports. “I would stay up some nights crying from the pain. I couldn’t fall asleep because the pain would just wake me up. Anytime I would have pain, I couldn’t consume anything. Not water or food. I was becoming malnourished and sleep-deprived and weak.”
She’s undergone three abdominal surgeries, most recently in November, and the pair pulled out of several competitions over the last year including the U.S. championships last January. Now, she says she’s “back.”
“My whole outlook changed,” she told Team USA. “I was grateful to have the chance to fall instead of stressing out over falling or not. Was a fall as big of a deal as a drain getting pulled out of me? No, not at all. I was grateful.”
2. Brittany Bowe, Speed Skating
Brittany Bowe will represent the U.S. once again in speed skating (she also competed in 2014). In 2016, Bowe suffered a concussion after colliding with another skater on the ice, and as she explained in a blog for TeamUSA.org, was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome as well as postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS).
Bowe wrote that she began a vestibular rehab program and began monitoring her POTS episodes and continued to train, but realized she needed to go home and let herself heal. However, “relaxing” only intensified her symptoms. She also began experiencing anxiety and panic.
“There were days I would walk outside to get some fresh air and after about 10 minutes of being on my feet, my heart rate would be in the 140s and I would nearly faint,” she wrote.
Bowe went to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado and began a new vestibular rehab program and POTS workout protocol.
“There would be times where people I’d not seen in a while [would say], ‘Oh you look great.’ And I’m just dying inside because I know my head isn’t on my shoulders,” she said in a video posted on her Instagram (above). “My heart goes out to all the people that deal with head injuries and traumatic brain injuries and mental illness that don’t have the support I had. Because without that, I have no idea where I would be.”
3. Spencer O’Brien, Snowboarding
Canadian snowboarder Spencer O’Brien was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in 2014, shortly before she headed to the Sochi Olympics. But as she told The Inertia, she wanted to push through and compete anyway. She ended up placing last.
“I started getting really stressed out and dealt with a couple of bouts of depression during that period, and emotional stress makes arthritis even worse,” O’Brien said. “By the time I got diagnosed it had gotten to the point where it was difficult to lift my head off of the pillow and I couldn’t walk down a set of stairs without my hand on the wall, which was a really scary feeling.”
She said it took a year and a half for her to find the right medication, which took care of her symptoms and she now feels “great” ahead of the 2018 games. Her advice to others dealing with serious health conditions is to be an advocate for your own health.
“I think with Western medicine we are really trained to accept that a doctor’s word is the end all, be all. I have a lot of trust for my physicians and the people who treat me, but I think it’s important to trust your gut and explore other options if necessary,” she said.
4. Kris Freeman, Cross-Country Skiing
Kris Freeman competed for Team USA in 2002, 2006, 2010 and now 2018. He was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at 19 years old, before his first Olympics, by a U.S. ski team doctor.
“The first two endocrinologists that I visited basically told me that no one [with this disease] had ever competed at the Olympic level in an endurance event, or just that it couldn’t be done; that I could continue skiing but not at an international level,” Freeman said. “That was a really crushing thing to hear.”
In order to compete in the two-hour event without stopping to inject insulin, Freeman told the New York Times that he lets his blood sugar run 50 to 100 percent higher than normal at the start of the race, to compensate for how skiing lowers his levels. In addition to skiing, Freeman also advocates for diabetes awareness and speaking at diabetes summer camps.
“I would say that you can go on to do anything that you want to with diabetes as long as you’re vigilant about your care,” he said.
5. Marc Oliveras, Alpine Skiing
After making his Olympic debut in 2014, Marc Oliveras will again compete in alpine skiing for Andorra this year. He was diagnosed with lupus in June 2014 and put his career temporarily on hold in September 2014 to undergo treatment.
“After a long recovery and a difficult summer, where I had to start first knowing the unknown, my disease, being able to compete is already a reward. [The condition] is a travel companion. Directly it does not affect me, indirectly yes. I have to think about controlling it to avoid an acute outbreak,” he said.
Whether you have a chronic illness yourself, have loved ones with chronic illness or are simply an Olympics fan, here are a few things everyone should keep in mind about chronically ill athletes:
1. Everyone’s condition is different. Even if you have the same diagnosis, their disease may present differently than yours. They may be more responsive to medication and treatment or have a milder form. No two people can be compared, and what works for one person may not work for another.
2. We don’t see their difficult moments. News stories often focus on athletes’ triumphs and don’t fully explain the flares and setbacks. The Olympics are the pinnacle of their career and it may not be apparent what challenges and sacrifices they endured to get there.
3. Elite athletes often have greater access to medical care. Olympic athletes work with world-class doctors, trainers and nutritionists to maintain their physical condition.
4. Just because you haven’t made it to the Olympics, that doesn’t mean you aren’t kicking butt in your own life. Accomplishments look different for each person with chronic illness. Maybe you’re psyched you made it out of bed today, or maybe you’re really proud that you’re able to work part-time. Whatever it is you’ve accomplished, you’re a warrior for doing it while battling a chronic illness.