Living with Lyme - the Angeli VanLaanen story
On the surface, it looked like your standard just-made-the-Olympics moment.
When halfpipe skier Angeli VanLaanen finished her first run at the U.S. Grand Prix on Jan. 18, her mother, aunts, grandmother and cousins erupted at the bottom of the pipe in Park City, Utah. Her brother, Cachaulo, watching on a computer screen, cheered his little sister's feat from San Diego.
Her score, 88.2, put her in first place at the fifth and final Olympic-qualifying contest, a spot she would hold for the rest of the event. It was her first halfpipe victory since 2009. But not until the last competitor reached the bottom did VanLaanen realize what else had happened. Fellow U.S. skier Brita Sigourney leaned over and whispered in VanLaanen's ear, "You got the spot for Sochi."
And just like that, VanLaanen's comeback -- from physical and emotional depths few humans know and from which fewer return intact -- was complete. Watching her weave down the Park City pipe, blasting off the walls and spinning tricks in both directions, forward and switch, it's easy to forget that she endured 14 years of body blows from an unknown disease. That she saw more than 20 doctors and heard diagnoses ranging from mononucleosis to a brain tumor before a test, in November 2009, finally pinpointed it as Lyme disease. That she then took three years off in the prime of her career and spent months hooked up to an IV, treating the chronic disease.
"When I landed my run, the feeling of joy that I had, I still can't find words," VanLaanen, 28, said in an interview five days later. "It didn't matter what my score was at that point, it didn't matter what my place was. I was so happy to have landed a run that showed my skiing to the highest ability that I can do."
To grasp the full scope of VanLaanen's Olympic odyssey, you must go back to a hot summer day in 1996.
Born and raised in Bellingham, Wash., VanLaanen and her mother and brother spent one year in Green Bay, Wis., when she was 10. During that summer, they visited a local carnival; VanLaanen remembers going on rides and walking the grounds with her family. Inexplicably, she fainted.
VanLaanen's mother took her to a doctor, who attributed her fainting to the sticky Midwest heat. It happened a few more times before they moved back to Washington, but because there was not an obvious cause beyond the heat, the problem was never diagnosed. VanLaanen now believes it was the first sign that she had contracted Lyme, a tick-borne bacterial illness that, if left untreated, can cause everything from skin rash to chronic pain to psychosis.
VanLaanen's symptoms -- Lyme disease sufferers experience a wide range, with no uniform set -- evolved and fluctuated over the course of her childhood. (The bacteria move through the body in stages, so the disease confuses doctors, leading to misdiagnosis.) The worst was prolonged fatigue. There were stretches when VanLaanen didn't get out of bed for days. She withdrew from athletic competitions because, she says, "I was not able to function."
Convinced that something was seriously wrong, VanLaanen and her family consulted a multitude of doctors. One would peg it as a hormone imbalance; another thought she had arthritis. She was tested for multiple sclerosis and brain cancer. Nothing clicked.
As is common with Lyme disease, VanLaanen's state deteriorated mentally as well as physically. She experienced panic attacks and was constantly frustrated by her condition. One of the crushing blows came her junior year in high school, when a doctor told her it was all in her head.
"That was where I kind of hit this wall," VanLaanen says. "Like, OK, I've been searching for years. This health issue that I'm having, I know, I can feel that it's not in my head, it's in my body. But now I'm doubting myself. I've just got to get on with my life. I'm going to work through this and not let it stop me from living my dreams."
VanLaanen internalized her struggles, compounding the problem. Her life was unraveling, and she had no clue how to stop it.
As kids, VanLaanen and her brother took after their free-spirited single mother, Allain. Each weekend, they made the two-hour drive from Bellingham up to Mount Baker, a small, iconic powder haunt that set a world record with 1,140 inches of snow in the 1998-'99 winter season.
Angeli followed Cachaulo and his friends everywhere they went. When they jumped a cliff or the famous Baker road gap, so did she. When they drove up to Whistler, B.C., in high school to improve their freestyle skills at the Momentum summer camp, Angeli went, too.
She learned her first halfpipe trick, a 360, from Momentum coach Sarah Burke. Burke became one of VanLaanen's mentors and went on to win four X Games gold medals before dying in January 2012 from injuries sustained in a training crash. VanLaanen's eyes still fill with tears when she talks about Burke's impact on her career and the sport, which Burke helped usher into the Olympics.
VanLaanen was 19 when she entered her first professional halfpipe competition, the 2005 Vermont Open. She won. Her star rose fast from there. In 2007, she competed in her first X Games, placing eighth. Although she was inexperienced and inconsistent, her potential was obvious to anyone who watched her ski.
"It was like, as soon as that girl starts landing runs, we're all done," two-time X Games champion Jen Hudak recalls.
"Her ability to naturally ride the halfpipe is better than anyone I've ever worked with," says Luke Allen, VanLaanen's coach, who has also tutored men's Olympic favorites David Wise and Torin Yater-Wallace.
Despite her talent, VanLaanen often crashed under the stress of competition, and her personality ebbed and flowed. Something didn't make sense to those who competed with her.
"There was a lot of whispering and questioning behind the scenes, wondering what was going on," Hudak says. "She fell a lot in contests, and interacting with her personally, she'd be normal one second and then all of a sudden she'd snap at you about something. A lot of us were like, 'This girl's crazy.'"
VanLaanen entered her second X Games in 2008 as a medal contender. During the final, however, she aired out of the pipe for a 720 and suddenly dropped like an egg. Vertigo, which came and went because of the Lyme disease, had taken over at the worst possible moment.
"I completely lost all sense of what was up, what was down, where I was in the air," VanLaanen says. "I felt as though I was just falling out of the sky. I didn't know how I was going to land, I couldn't tell where the snow was. That sense of not having control was terrifying."
VanLaanen crashed hard. Soon after, she began searching for a diagnosis all over again. The quest continued until November 2009, when her aunt watched a documentary on Lyme and finally put the puzzle together. VanLaanen tested positive for Lyme disease two weeks later.
She began antibiotic treatment immediately. At first she tried to keep skiing, but it affected her treatments, so she gave it up. She didn't ski for two years, stopped drinking alcohol and caffeine and cut down on sugar. She spent months hooked up to IV drips for up to seven hours a day. She couldn't exercise or sweat because of risk of infection. The hardest part for her mother was "just watching her have to be still."
Most of all, VanLaanen missed her community of halfpipe skiers. She held onto sadness, she says, watching the sport move forward without her. But subtle moments of hope kept her committed.
"I remember the first time I realized that a symptom had gone away," she says. "I'd had blurry vision and spots in the years when the Lyme had progressed the most, and when I could see clearly again, consistently for days without having a blurry-vision episode, it was a really emotional moment. Because I could relax knowing that, OK, this is what it is, the treatment is working and I'm getting better. But it took almost a year of treatment for that to happen."
VanLaanen slowly regained her strength from there. Her first competition back, in New Zealand in August 2012, she finished second, jump starting her Olympic pursuit.
On a sunny day in late January, VanLaanen sits in a hotel lobby (the Limelight, of course) in Aspen, Colo., pondering the next chapter in her story.
"I've never felt stronger, never felt more healthy," she says. "Especially after not knowing what healthy was for so long."
People talk about the Olympic spirit, but VanLaanen lives it. She is a dark horse instead of the favorite she might have been with three more years of training. But she does not wonder what if. "Speculation is, in my opinion, a waste of energy," she says. "I focus all my energy on what I have now."
What she has, in addition to the title of Olympian, is a unique platform to reach other Lyme disease sufferers. She answers every email. She reminds patients that they are not alone, a sentiment she struggled with before she was diagnosed.
In the wake of the hectic, six-week Olympic-qualifying period, VanLaanen sighs and admits to feeling sore and tired. She does not compete in Russia until Feb. 20, and if anyone can appreciate the break, it's her.
"It's been emotionally grueling, physically grueling," she says. "I'm grateful to my body for being so strong through it all."