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How 3 Olympians with Autoimmunity Managed Their Symptoms

With the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games coming to a close this weekend, we’re reflecting on the sheer physical power displayed by all the athletes. Many have faced different challenges to get where they are, but some olympians with autoimmunity have overcome even more to perform at top levels in their sport. 

 

Their performances require determination and the ability to far surpass average physical limitations. This is true especially for athletes who compete despite ongoing chronic illnesses. Notably, Shannon Boxx, soccer player, Carrie Johnson, canoeist, and Venus Williams, tennis player, were each diagnosed with autoimmune diseases within the height of their professional careers. 

 

Although an Olympian might not be the most obvious choice for a relatable figure when you’re struggling with autoimmune disease, the journeys of Boxx, Johnson, and Williams in regaining their stamina feel familiar in ways. For the three olympians with autoimmunity, debilitating symptoms arose, leading them to a difficult and lengthy process in obtaining a diagnosis. Once they began to understand their individual conditions, new chapters began: finding out how to manage their symptoms and avoid flare-ups, and eventually, returning to the top of their respective games. 

 

Inspirational Olympians with Autoimmunity

 

So, as the Olympics wrap up in the coming days, we encourage you to reflect on the ways in which you’ve overcome the obstacles of your own autoimmunity. And if you’re not quite there yet, we’re here to help. 

 

Shannon Boxx: Sjogren’s Syndrome, Lupus

Shannon Boxx, a former Olympic soccer player, was diagnosed with lupus in 2007 following struggles with fatigue, muscle pain, and joint pain. She also has Sjogren’s Syndrome. Despite her lupus symptoms and symptoms affecting her mouth, eyes, and skin, Boxx went on to earn gold in 2012 as part of the US women’s soccer team. In an interview with CNN health, Boxx described the management of her symptoms. She explained a mixture of medication, alterations to her training routine, compression clothing, and the implementation of rest days allowed her to keep flair-ups under control. 

 

“On the positive side,” Boxx noted of her autoimmune diseases, “it has made me so much stronger as a person and an athlete… I may have a bad day, but it won’t stop me from trying again the next day.”

 

Now retired, Boxx has dedicated time to bring awareness to both lupus and Sjogren’s, citing the desire to help other suffering individuals reduce their average time to receive a diagnosis by highlighting the symptoms.

 

Carrie Johnson: Crohn’s Disease

Carrie Johnson, a 2004, 2008, and 2012 Olympian, represented the US in the Canoe Sprint, K1 500m and K1 200m. Following symptoms including anemia, severe gastrointestinal distress, and chronic fatigue, Johnson was found to have Crohn’s disease. She ultimately declined her earned spot within the 2003 World Championships team to focus on regaining her health.

 

Through a combination of medication, dietary changes, and monitoring her symptomatic warning signs, Johnson was able to avoid flare-ups and continue to pursue her athletic aspirations with full force, qualifying for the 2004 games less than a year after her diagnosis. Johnson, now an advocate for those with Crohn’s, emphasized to those suffering the importance of familiarizing themselves with resources to help them.

 

Venus Williams: Sjogren’s Syndrome

Venus Williams, a professional tennis player and four-time Olympic gold medalist, was diagnosed in 2011 with Sjogren’s Syndrome after suffering from joint pain, a loss of strength, and dryness in her mouth and eyes. Her career took a hit prior to her diagnosis: she suffered a tumultuous season including withdrawing from matches and injuries.

 

Williams credits a plant-based diet and a changed exercise regime to the management of her symptoms related to the syndrome.

 

“I fell in love with the concept of fueling your body in the best way possible,” said Williams in an interview with Health. “I feel like I’m doing the right thing for me.”  Williams eventually returned to her placement as one of the top tennis competitors worldwide.  

 

Managing your symptoms of autoimmunity can feel incredibly overwhelming. By committing to working with a coach and monitoring your triggers, you can find your way back to feeling like yourselves again.

 

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