The best part of watching world-class athletes perform is trying to imagine our own bodies accomplishing the same feat—and realizing we can’t even do the imagining part. Based on playground observations and some ill-advised attempts among adults we know, we’d venture to say less than 10% of the human population can even do a decent cartwheel. Anything close to resembling Simone Biles’ signature moves? Forgetaboutit.
That’s why it’s extra mind-bending when we learn that some of the world’s most accomplished athletes have also overcome major physical and emotional challenges en route to excellence, such as living with a chronic medical condition. Take Crohn’s disease, for example. This autoimmune disorder, which affects an estimated 780,000 Americans and is becoming even more prevalent, involves inflammation of the digestive tract, leading to abdominal pain, severe diarrhea, fatigue, and weight loss—not exactly easy symptoms to deal with while pushing your body to its physical limits. Yet athletes have reached record-breaking performance levels while living with Crohn’s disease—and they’re not afraid to talk about it. They’re raising awareness about the disease while inspiring people around the world who face the same challenges, especially the many who’ve been diagnosed at a young age and have so many years of goals still ahead of them. Here’s what four highly successful athletes have said about how they manage to live with Crohn’s disease and some of their best advice for others who face the same challenges.
Olympic swimmer Kathleen Baker
Kathleen Baker could have easily let her longtime Olympic swimming dreams slip away when she was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease. She was just 12, living in North Carolina, and had noticed she was suddenly losing a lot of weight and experiencing fevers and the full spectrum of gastrointestinal symptoms. “I went from breaking national age-group records to not being able to do a whole practice due to straight-up exhaustion and symptoms I was having,” she said. Her first thought was that of course she’d have to let go of her status as an elite athlete: “I love swimming more than anything in this world, and I just couldn’t comprehend why I deserved to have something like this, where I felt like my swimming was going to be taken away from me.” Yet despite her diagnosis in 2010, she went on to win a gold and a silver medal in the 2016 Rio Olympics and set world records. What kept her going: She found doctors who supported her goals and helped her figure out how to control her condition while training, including finding an effective medication (which she needed to inject biweekly into her abdomen), taking it easy during flare-ups, and limiting her practice to once a day. “I found doctors who weren’t going to be just like, ‘You’re Kathleen with Crohn’s disease.’ I need to be Kathleen the swimmer with Crohn’s disease,” she said. She kept her health as the number-one priority, skipping practices if necessary. Instead of working harder, she had to work smarter—which went against her every instinct. “Did I believe it would work? I didn’t know. That was the hardest part,” she told NBC Sports. Luckily she kept believing, and just two weeks before the Olympic Trials, she was feeling like herself in the pool again.
Pro wrestler Aerial Hull (AKA Big Swole)
On-the-rise wrestling star Aerial Hull, who goes by Big Swole, has the requisite big personality, but both inside the ring and out, and she’s also battling Crohn’s. She hasn’t wrestled since January due to a flare-up, and she’s been vocal on social media about the physical challenges she faces beyond the usual ones associated with her job. On March 9, she posted a lengthy health update on Twitter. She said that while Crohn’s has at times left her joints so swollen she can’t walk, she has faith that new treatments will have her back in fighting shape again soon. You can follow her journey on Instagram, where she’ll often address her fellow “#Crohnies.”