There are few, if any, sporting events that are as inspirational as the Olympic Games. Making it to the Olympics requires an athlete to possess an incredible amount of willpower and determination. This might explain why the Olympics strike a chord with so many people who would otherwise never devote weeks of their lives to watching sports. As if medal-winning, and record breaking performances aren’t inspiring enough, a number of top Olympians at this summer’s games have had to overcome life-altering obstacles in their quest for the podium. Many have these challenges take the form of health problems and conditions that are difficult enough on their own, without the added pressure of competing on a global stage. That certainly hasn’t stopped these Olympians. Here’s a look at some heroic Olympians with chronic conditions competing in Rio this year.
Olympians with Chronic Conditions #1: Kathleen Baker
Accolades: 2016 Rio Olympic Games women’s 100m backstroke silver medalist
Condition/Disorder: Crohn’s Disease
Crohn’s disease affects the intestines- particularly the colon. The immune system attacks the harmless bacteria in our GI tract that aid in digestion, leaving behind tiny ulcers and wreckage. It alters the body in many ways, including terrible stomach pains (flare ups) that come and go in an irregular rhythm. Crohn’s will also obstruct appetite so that the idea of food becomes nauseating. It will sap you of your strength, steal your sleep, and hollow out your zest for life. In addition, the disease feeds off of tension, stress, and pressure. It hits everyone at the very moment when confidence and composure are paramount- not exactly ideal for an Olympic hopeful.
One of these individuals is the American Olympic swimmer Kathleen Baker. She was diagnosed at the age of 14, after an initial diagnosis of mononucleosis. Baker began to lose weight despite eating voraciously, experienced horrible stomach pain, and often carried around a low-grade fever. At first she rebelled against the disease by pushing herself to the brink during training sessions. She refused to cooperate when her coach tried to adjust her training, and would simply continue to wear herself down. She had to reduce her workload, and learn how to work smarter.
Shortly before her chance at qualifying for the Olympics, she was not performing well. She simply did not look good in the water. Despite this, she swam the fastest race of her life in the finals of the trials- 59.29 seconds in the 100-meter backstroke- and gained a spot on the US Olympic team. Baker recently won the silver medal for the 100m backstroke at the Rio games. To read more about Kathleen Baker’s remarkable Olympic Journey, check this article from NBC’s Olympic coverage.
Curious to know what it is like living with Crohn’s disease? Explore this in-depth journal entry from one of our members.
Olympians with Chronic Conditions #2: Chris Froome
Country: Great Britain
Sport: Cycling- road
Accolades: 2016 Rio Olympic Games Bronze medal in men’s time trial
Condition/Disorder: Bilharzia (tropical parasitic disease)
For those of you who aren’t from rural Africa, Bilharzia is a parasite that thrives in the murky waters of the continent. Its larvae are deposited inside a human host. It is tough to diagnose and even tougher to eradicate. Olympic cyclist Chris Froome has been battling this enemy within for the past several years. He gets bi-annual checkups and treatments in an effort to rid the parasite from his system. Also, he takes a medication called Biltricide which is supposed to kill the parasite. It’s a strong pill, preventing him from training during treatment. Doctors initially thought his symptoms indicated mononucleosis, and the parasite went largely undiagnosed until Froome underwent extensive blood screening.
The parasite is thought to be the reason Froome did not reach his potential earlier in his career. It prevented him from achieving 100% fitness, and the real Froome could not emerge until the bilharzia was diagnosed and treated. This has been proven by his performance so far in Rio, where he has won the bronze medal in the men’s time trial. To read more about Chris Froome’s heroic fight with Bilharzia, check out this article from velonews.
Olympians with Chronic Conditions #3: Cody Miller
Accolades: 2016 Rio Olympic Games Bronze medal in men’s 100m breaststroke
Condition/Disorder: Pectus Excavatum and Asthma
Cody Miller is not a typical Olympic swimmer. Most are incredibly tall, while he’s 5’11” and only weighs 170lbs. More often than not he is the smallest person in the pool. To complicate matters even more, he was born with the condition Pectus Excavatum- a deformity that began appearing around the age of 10. The condition puts stress on his respiratory system- his sunken sternum and odd placement of other bones has caused a reduced lung capacity (likely reduced by 12-20% according to doctors). He’s also a diagnosed asthmatic, which has nothing to do with his pectus condition. Needless to say, Cody lives in extremely difficult circumstances for a swimmer. His physical attributes are a far cry from those of Michael Phelps, who seems to have been born for the role of an Olympic swimmer. Despite these formidable disadvantages, he has dedicated his life to swimming and has always refused to give up. He has struggled with body-image issues throughout his life due to the abnormal appearance of his chest. Now, it’s safe to say he’s at peace with both his body and his abilities- having won the bronze medal in the men’s 100m breaststroke in Rio. To learn more about Cody’s condition and swimming career, check out this article from the Rare Disease Report.
Olympians with Chronic Conditions #4: Kemar Bailey-Cole
Sport: Track and field
Accolades: 2012 London Olympic Games 4x100m relay gold medalist
Fears over the zika virus dominated the build-up to the Rio Olympics, and even persuaded athletes such as Rory McIlroy to skip the games. This fear became a reality for the Jamaican sprinter Kemar Bailey-Cole after his girlfriend noticed a bump on his neck while he was getting cleaned up after a haircut. Prior to the diagnosis, he was experiencing back pains and muscle soreness, which he thought were the result of the exercises he was doing. This led to feelings of intense disappointment in his abilities. Despite all of this, he still participated in Jamaica’s Olympic trials, where he battled the likes of Usain Bolt, Asafa Powell, and Yohan Blake for a place on the team in Rio. He complained afterward of the difficulty of recovery due to rashes on his body. Also, he was experiencing pain in his eyes, but luckily muscle soreness was no longer an issue. The Commonwealth Games gold medalist defied the odds by making the Jamaican team and guaranteeing a trip to Rio where he will compete in the men’s 4x100 relay. To read more about Kemar Bailey-Cole’s battle with zika leading up to Rio, check out this article from The Guardian.
Olympians with Chronic Conditions #5: Chase Kalisz
Accolades: 2016 Rio Olympic Games Men’s 400m individual medley silver medalist
Condition/Disorder: Guillain-Barre Syndrome
At 8 years old, Chase Kalisz ran a 5k with his family, woke that night with pain in his legs, crawled into his parents’ room the next night and was carried into the hospital by his father, unable to walk. While there he was placed on a respirator and induced into a coma. His mother couldn’t help but wonder if she was going to lose her son. He was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that strikes 3,000 to 6,000 people in the United States annually. Only eighty percent make a full recovery. After emerging from a week-long coma, he still had a feeding tube in his mouth and had to communicate by blinking. He described this as a miserable time. Eventually Kalisz was transferred to a rehab hospital where his outlet became a small rehab pool. According to his father, spending time in the pool changed everything for his young son. Doctors told him he would likely remain at the hospital for 6 months, but after only 3 he was wheeled out the door. At this point, he began using swimming as therapy. He went on to a successful swimming career at the University of Georgia and fulfilled his dream of becoming an Olympian. Just fourteen years ago, Chase lay in a hospital bed in a coma. Now he is a silver medalist in the 400m individual medley at the Rio Olympic Games. Check out this article from pressbox online to read more about Chase Kalisz’s inspiring Olympic journey.
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