When pro skier Angeli Vanlaanen dropped into her 2008 X Games competition run, she was at the height of her career. As the favorite, she was expected to dominate the other skiers and walk away with the gold. But that didn't happen.
Vertigo set in when Vanlaanen flew through the air, high above the rim of the pipe. She fell and crashed hard to the ground.
Unbeknownst to her, Vanlaanen experienced vertigo as a result of advanced, untreated Lyme disease. Diagnosed in November 2009, she withdrew from her promising ski career to focus on her health.
Today at 27, Vanlaanen is in remission and resolved to win back her career. With renewed dedication, she is determined to represent Team USA in the SuperPipe at the Sochi Olympics in 2014.
STACK: When did you first start to feel like something was wrong with your body?
Vanlaanen: The biggest memory that sticks out in my mind, where it was really obvious that something was wrong, was when I was competing at X Games in 2008. I was skiing really well in practice, landing runs that could win the contest. That week I was viewed as the favorite to win.
So there was all this hype about how I was a contender for a gold medal at the X Games. Then the day of the competition, during one of my runs, I was in the air and had no grounding on what was up and what was down. I just lost all of my balance in the middle of a trick. I had a really hard crash, and it was really obvious to everyone else that there was something wrong, that something happened while I was in the air. And for me, it was really obvious that that's not normal. I was landing that trick, and skiing really well, just the day before. And the next day, I have no idea where I am. That's the moment that sticks out in my mind.
That was in 2008, when my symptoms were at their worst and my health was as its lowest point.
STACK: Do you segment your life as pre-diagnosis and post-diagnosis?
Vanlaanen: That is a great question. I would say that I do. But I segment it as before I became healthy again and now—after I have my health back. I started showing Lyme symptoms at age 10; I struggled with the disease for many years. I was diagnosed in remission in March of 2012—so I see that as the point where I got to begin again on a new slate with 100 percent health.
STACK: When you were at your sickest, can you explain the frustrations of living with an invisible disease?
Vanlaanen: I felt alone. When you have an illness that's invisible, you are literally going through it alone. The best way for me to explain it to people is like this: on the inside, you have all this turmoil and pain and struggle going on physically, but on the outside you look perfectly normal.
Without having a diagnosis to explain to people what was going on in my body, people just assumed I was fine. But I wasn't.
STACK: What motivated you to create Lyme Light [Vanlaanen's personal documentary chronicling her battle with Lyme disease]?
Vanlaanen: The disease isn't understood; there's not enough knowledge out there. There are a lot of illnesses that are understood in our culture and society, but Lyme disease isn't one of them. Lyme disease is a really challenging disease to have; it's painful emotionally and physically. I want society to offer support, compassion and understanding to people battling the disease. Making Lyme Light allowed me to give back and find peace.
STACK: It's only been a couple years since you were diagnosed with Lyme disease. Have you accepted that the disease is now a permanent part of you?
Vanlaanen: I accepted the experience but never accepted the disease as a part of me. I decided I wasn't going to let this disease define me. I wasn't going to let it stop me from following my dreams.
STACK: How does having a mind of an athlete help you battle Lyme disease?
Vanlaanen: That's a great question, because it absolutely has helped me.
Athletes hone in on every area of their life and do whatever it takes to reach their full potential. When I was diagnosed with Lyme disease, I broke it down: I researched a ton, I found a doctor, got a second opinion and found out what my options were for treatment. I approached it like I do skiing.
STACK: What do you do to work out right now?
Vanlaanen: I do a lot of weight training and circuit workouts.
Any kind of activity where I'm going to have that fluid motion where you think on your feet and react really fast. I bike a lot—spin bike at the gym, mountain bike when I can. I do a lot of skateboarding. I bowl skate—it's super fun.
I also do a lot of yoga. Being flexible and agile is really important in my sport. The visualization and meditation that happens during yoga is key to me recovering from being sick for so long.
STACK: Since being diagnosed, you take your diet very seriously, which means no alcohol. What do you drink when you go to the bars?
Vanlaanen: I'll have some pineapple juice with some soda water and a lime—a juice spritzer! I'm still socializing and hanging out with a drink in hand!
STACK: But you have no hangover, so it's actually a lot better! What about food? Since you don't eat refined sugar, what are your splurges?
Vanlaanen: Since being in remission, I eat dark chocolate now and again, and that is one of my splurges. And it's funny because my friends call it "partying" when I eat some chocolate.
But when I was battling Lyme symptoms, I cut refined sugar out of my diet. When I did that, the main thing I missed was chocolate. But during the three years I was strictly no refined sugar, I found so many alternatives that are just as delicious. So now I just eat those instead. Like, I can make a chocolate mousse with coconut milk, dates and raw cacao powder—which has no sweetener in it. I have a lot of those kinds of recipes
STACK: That sounds awesome. You're like a walking Pinterest with all these recipes ideas.
Vanlaanen: Pinterest definitely helped me a lot!
STACK: Right now, do you have your sights set on making the Olympic team?
Vanlaanen: Yes! For the next eight months, everything I'm doing is about the Olympics.
STACK: When do you find out if you make the team?
Vanlaanen: In January, pretty much right before the event.
STACK: What should we expect from your Olympic run?
Vanlaanen: My main focus for my Olympic run is to make a masterpiece of technicalities, style and amplitude. Have a balance of everything that we're being judged on, so that this run is exciting in every way. That's what I'm looking to do.
And I'm definitely trying to learn new tricks right now, so hopefully I'll have a few new tricks in there.
STACK: What is your favorite book?
Vanlaanen: I don't know if you're looking for a good read or something to express my personality, but my favorite book of all time is The Giving Tree. It's a children's book, but it's definitely got some really great wisdom. It taught me how to live my life.
STACK: What scares you?
Vanlaanen: My biggest fear is being where I was before being diagnosed. I was so hopeless and lost. But the rational part of me knows that will never happen because I have the knowledge and awareness and confidence in knowing my body.
STACK: Today, do you feel lucky?
Vanlaanen: Heck ya! I feel unbelievably lucky. One of the best compliments I've ever received came from a friend who said, I wasn't lucky, I was determined.
The word "luck" makes it sound like it's out of your control. True, a lot of things are out of your control in life, but in the case of my health, I took charge, and I became an active part of getting better. So, in that sense, I'm just so grateful to have had the willpower to cut out sugar—which, by the way, was very hard. But the lucky bit, I am so fortunate to have such amazing people in my life to inspire me, amazing family to support me, the resources to get treatment and an incredible doctor. I am so lucky in so many ways. I feel really fortunate.
And lastly, I feel so lucky to be part of a sport that gives me the opportunity to possibly go to the Olympics. That's the pinnacle of any sport.
STACK: How do you want your legacy to be remembered?
Vanlaanen: At the core of my personality, the thing that matters most to me is connecting with people. I want my legacy to be that I made a difference for the Lyme community or inspired a kid to get into sports and live a healthy lifestyle.
STACK: Do you have any parting words?
Vanlaanen: Stand up for what you believe in; don't let roadblocks stop you from achieving your dreams.
Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock