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How the Mindset of Olympic Athletes Inspires Me as Someone With Chronic Illness

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So far the Rio Olympics has been an incredible spectacle of elite performance, showcasing the human spirit race after race, event after event. As with every Olympics they are also filled with stories of triumph over adversity.

There’s the story of Yusra Mardini who, with the help of her sister, pushed a sinking boat of 20 refugees into shore and competed in the 100-meter butterfly, winning her heat and fulfilling an Olympic dream. There will be similar stories from every one of the 10 members of the refugee Olympic team and yet they are all competing at the Games.

Then there are the stories of athletes who have staged their comeback from potentially career-ending illness and injury. Chase Kalisz, of the US swimming team, diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome as a child, has fought back from a coma to health to compete in the 400-meter individual medley and win a silver medal. And then there’s Siobhan-Marie O’Connor, who has ulcerative colitis which was undiagnosed when she took part in the 2012 London games. She’s just won a silver medal in the 200-meter individual medley.

I think the stories of all these athletes should be heard by everyone with chronic illness, of whatever variety and of any severity. Not once, even in the darkest parts of their experiences, have these athletes ever given up on their goals. Never. In many cases, their dreams will have carried them through those dark days, kept them alive even. I’m not saying we can all get up and become Olympic athletes. Whatever we want to achieve — whether that’s being able to dress ourselves, or to walk to end of the street, take up a much loved sport or past-time again, or to get back into work — the one thing we must never do is give up on that dream, however long it takes to get there.

Every Olympian has spent years of their life training. They’ve worked hard to hone their technique endlessly. Training is all about learning and developing. There are always new advances in the thinking behind what breeds perfection in each sport. In swimming, for example, when I was training we were taught to breathe to the side every three strokes — on alternate sides — and now common practice is to breathe every two strokes, and on only one side. This reduces the twist and roll on the swimmer and keeps them more straight and streamlined. Training is about unlearning what you’ve always known, relearning new techniques, experimenting and developing to achieve as close to perfection as possible.

Taking this into chronic life, it’s easy to get stuck in a rut of behavior that we know may not be doing the best for us. Just like the Olympians, we need to constantly evaluate what we’re doing, keep trying to find a combination of diet, activity and rest to make us as well as we can possibly be. That might mean going back to the drawing board every so often, trying something completely new. It might mean making small adjustments that send us backwards to ultimately take us forwards. It’s keeping up with current research and trying to put what’s realistically possible into practice. It’s a continuous and never-ending process that we have to practice over and over and over again.

Don’t give up, and don’t accept what you’ve always got is all you’ll ever get. Change things up if you can — you can always go back to what you did before. Don’t jeopardize yourself, but I don’t think you should be afraid of taking some risks to make things better, if your health allows. Take on the mindset of an Olympian and see where it takes you.

Originally published: August 18, 2016
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