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Olympics: VanLaanen tames illness, soars to Sochi

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Anglei VanLaanen reacts after finishing her second run during the women's freestyle skiing superpipe final at the Dew Tour iON Mountain Championships, Friday, Dec. 13, 2013, in Breckenridge, Colo. Van Laanen placed second in the event. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

By Michael C. Lewis

Special to The Tribune

First published Feb 03 2014 01:15PM
Updated Feb 5, 2014 11:09AM

Year after year, Angeli VanLaanen trained hard to become a top-level freeskier. But year after year, her mysterious symptoms only grew worse and worse.

Joint pain, muscle spasms.

Debilitating fatigue.

Vertigo, fainting spells. Headaches and back pain.

None of it could be explained. For 14 years — 14 years! — doctors had no answers for VanLaanen about what was causing the strange amalgam of pain and suffering that was slowly sabotaging her life and her career. Some of them even told her it was all in her head.

"It was really traumatic," she recalled.

But that all seems like a lifetime ago for VanLaanen, who lives in Salt Lake City and will be competing in the Sochi Olympics that start this week.

The 28-year-old from Bellingham, Wash., is among seven Utah residents who will compete in one of the new freeskiing events — Joss Christensen, Devin Logan, Julia Krass and Maggie Voisin in slopestyle and Maddie Bowman, Brita Sigourney and VanLaanen in halfpipe — but she’s quite clearly the one who endured the longest road to get there.

"I’m just grateful to be in this position," she said.

She might not be, had it not been for an aunt who watched a documentary about Lyme disease called "Under Our Skin," and noticed the similarity between the illness’ symptoms and what VanLaanen was enduring.

Her aunt suggested VanLaanen get tested, and two weeks later it was confirmed that VanLaanen had Lyme, the tick-borne bacterial disease — VanLaanen suspects she was bitten when she was 10 years old and living in Wisconsin — that can lead to serious and wide-ranging problems if left untreated. It’s often misdiagnosed because its symptoms can mimic other illnesses, and the test for it can produce false negatives.

Thus, VanLaanen’s enduring agony.

"My symptoms were so varied and they changed so much over the years," she said, "it really confused doctors."

Sometimes, VanLaanen felt fine.

But other times, her symptoms would flare unexpectedly — occasionally in the middle of a competition. It worsened to the point that by the time she was in her 20s, VanLaanen sometimes could not get out of bed because the pain was so great. She once passed out on a chairlift.

"I did know something was seriously wrong inside," she said. "I definitely doubted myself."

Once she was finally diagnosed, after all those years, VanLaanen took nearly three years away from her sport to get healthy.

She took antibiotic pills, changed her diet — no more processed sugars, caffeine or alcohol — and endured six months of intravenous treatment in which she spent hours each day having antibiotics pumped into her body. She knew that it would take a long time for her symptoms to subside, with her disease having gone undetected for so long.

Inspired by the film her aunt saw, VanLaanen spent part of her recovery time raising money to create a documentary about her struggle, "LymeLight," and becoming a spokeswoman for the LymeLight Foundation, which works to raise awareness about the disease and help young people suffering from it to receive proper medical care.

"That documentary made such a huge impact on my life, in a positive way," VanLaanen said. "Thank goodness my aunt saw it and encouraged me to get tested."

Now, VanLaanen is officially in remission, and hasn’t felt any symptoms of Lyme for a year.

That has allowed her athletic prowess to finally take full bloom. In her first competition back, VanLaanen finished second, and she ranks among the Olympic medal contenders in ski halfpipe — basically the same as snowboarding in the halfpipe but with skis.

In fact, VanLaanen, Sigourney and Bowman all could medal for the U.S. in Sochi, though reigning world champion Virginie Faivre of Switzerland is considered the favorite.

But for VanLaanen, the opportunity to be healthy and happy again is more than enough.

"It’s really amazing to see my potential as an athlete," she said. "I feel like I’m finally reaching that. I’m able to progress. For lot of years I was not progressing because I was constantly being set back by flare-ups. Now that I’m healthy 100 percent I can put my all into skiing.

"The effort that I put in, I can see it pay off now," she said. "I tell my body to do something — a new trick — and it responds now. My body is working with me and not holding me back anymore. It’s just been phenomenal to be reaching toward my potential as an athlete."

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