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This Inspiring Woman Refused to Let Lyme Disease Stop Her From Making it to the Olympic Games
The road to the Olympics is never easy—but for Angeli Vanlaanen, a member of the U.S. Olympic halfpipe skiing team, it was harder than most: Vanlaanen’s currently in remission from Lyme disease, but she struggled with the illness for 14 years before receiving so much as a diagnosis.
From the ages of 10 to 24, she suffered from a cluster of mysterious systems: First fatigue and sinus problems, then fainting spells. In her teens, she developed dyslexia, and in her early 20s, blurry vision. Debilitating joint and muscle pain were a near-constant for Vanlaanen. Again and again, she would visit the doctor, and again and again, they told her that they couldn’t find anything wrong with her physically—after all, she wasn’t responding to any of the treatments they gave her. Perhaps the problem was psychosomatic, they eventually suggested. Incredibly, though, Vanlaanen, didn’t let her illness stop her from ice skating, doing ballet, and of course, skiing.
After high school, she moved to Colorado to start skiing competitively. “I was still struggling physically, but I wasn’t going to let it stop me,” she says. People with Lyme disease often experience symptoms in waves. In some competitions, when her pain weren’t as severe, Vanlaanen would finish near the top. In others, she would drag herself out to the slopes, only to perform poorly. People speculated that she was choking under pressure, although Vanlaanen knew that wasn’t what was going on.
“Doctors were saying, ‘We don’t think anything’s wrong with you,’” she says. “I would get out there and give it my all because I didn’t know any different.”
While Vanlaanen’s performance was inconsistent, it was still good enough for her to go continue competing. So in 2008, she started traveling and skiing in the X Games. Then, in the fall of 2009, Vanlaanen’s aunt called to tell her about a documentary she’d seen about Lyme disease. Many of the symptoms covered in the film seemed similar to those that had been plaguing Vanlaanen, so her aunt encouraged her to ask the doctors if Lyme disease could be behind her 14 years of symptoms.
Sure enough, the blood test came back positive for Lyme disease. “It was a bit of a relief,” says Vanlaanen, who was 24 when she finally received this diagnosis. “Then, after researching with doctors what lay ahead, it wasn’t a relief.”
It would take two and a half years on antibiotics for Vanlaanen to get her Lyme disease under control—two years of which she spent completely sidelined. Not only could she not compete, but she was forbidden from doing any sort of physical activity. After Vanlaanen was officially in remission, it took her six months to build her strength back up to the point where she could compete again.
She had just two weeks to practice on the snow and relearn all of her tricks before her first competition back, the 2012 New Zealand Open—but Vanlaanen snagged second place in halfpipe skiing that day.
“I just light up when I think about that first contest,” she says. “It was so much easier than it’d been before because I’d never been healthy.”
Vanlaanen set her sight on the Olympics, and earlier this month, she was named a member of the U.S. halfpipe skiing team (the sport is being featured as an Olympic event for the first time ever this year).
Lyme disease is still very much a part of Vanlaanen’s life: She has to be tested every six months to make sure she’s still in remission, and she follows a strict anti-inflammatory diet so as not to tax her immune system. Vanlaanen also made a 30-minute documentary called LymeLight about the disease last year, in hopes that it would help others who are unknowingly suffering from it to receive diagnosis and treatment.
“For so many years I had people saying, ‘There’s nothing wrong with you,’” she says.
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