The 2018 PyeongChang Olympic Games are coming to a close. Did you happen to catch any of these 5 Olympians with health conditions (recently highlighted in The Mighty)? Their performances were inspiring — but their perspective on living with illness is what’s really golden.
U.S. pairs figure skater Alexa Scimeca-Knierim developed a rare, life-threatening gastrointestinal disorder that caused episodes of vomiting and severe weight loss and has been hard to diagnose. She had three abdominal surgeries and has shown her scars on Instagram.
After a long and painful recovery, Alexa was able to return to skating. “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.”
In PyeongChang, Alexa and her husband/skating partner, Chris Knierim, took home the bronze medal in the figure skating team competition and placed 15th in the pairs competition.
Alexa shared this photo with SELF for a video about her health problems and extraordinary road to the Olympics.
American long-track speed skater Brittany Bowe sustained a concussion when she collided with another skater in 2016. Later, after fainting multiple times, she was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome and a lesser-known condition called “POTS” or postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome. POTS can be a years-long or potentially lifelong condition, and it affects the body’s ability to control blood pressure or heart rate as it should when you stand up, which can cause dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting.
“There would be times where people I’d not seen in a while [would say], ‘Oh you look great, you look so healthy…’ And I’m just dying inside because I know my head isn’t on my shoulders where it normally sits,” Brittany said in a video she shared on Instagram. (Her comments reminds us of what many patients with invisible illness hear from “the normals”: “But you look so good!”). She received specialized care and coaching for people with POTS and was able to qualify for the 2018 Olympics.
Canadian snowboarder Spencer O’Brien started feeling serious joint pain and stiffness in late 2012, and she originally attributed it to normal wear and tear from her sport. It took until 2014 to get the right diagnosis (rheumatoid arthritis) — and she went through bouts of depression before finding out what was wrong.
“A big lesson I learned during that experience was to be an advocate for my health,” Spencer told The Inertia. “I think our intuition is so strong, like I knew something was wrong with me beyond the injuries, and I did voice that, but we ran a number of tests, which came back clean.” She had to push for additional tests, which pointed to RA and helped her get on the right track with her treatments so she could continue her sport.
U.S. cross-country skier Kris Freeman was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 2000 (at age 19) after a routine blood test run by a U.S. ski team physiologist. PyeongChang was his fourth Olympics appearance. During the 2006 Olympic Games, The New York Times profiled Freeman and his unique treatment/training regimen. (Little known fact: Insulin is on the anti-doping list, and athletes who need it for medical treatment, like Kris, have to apply for a waiver — “one more hurdle that comes with managing diabetes,” The Times noted.)
“The last few years have been tough with some pretty public setbacks with my diabetes,” Kris told Lilly Diabetes (he’s a speaker at their diabetes summer camps for kids). “But, I’ve been able to stay positive and maintain my nutrition and overall diabetes management, which has helped me tremendously. I want to show everyone, especially children, that they can and should keep reaching for their dreams.”
Marc Oliveras, an alpine skier from Andorra, was diagnosed with lupus (SLE) in 2014 and took a break from his sport so he could treat the autoimmune disorder, which was affecting his skin, kidneys and blood. “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,” he said in his athlete profile.
It’s worth reading The Mighty’s article to the end, because the author reminds people living with health conditions that everyone’s illness and situation is different: some people may have milder forms of a disease, respond better to treatment, or have better access to world-class care.
Also, the media tend to share a boiled-down or glossed-over features on athletes triumphantly “overcoming” their condition, rather than showing the everyday challenges or realities of managing their condition while training for their sport. Fortunately, athletes like the ones above are raising awareness: they’ve lived, breathed and trained with their condition, and they feel grateful to even be able to compete. That kind of perspective is pure gold.
Patients like me.