VanLaanen overcomes Lyme disease to pursue Olympic dream

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDDecember 14, 2013 

From the time her mother first introduced her to the slopes at Mt. Baker Ski Area when she was 7, Angeli VanLaanen has been an athlete.

Skiing was obviously her love, but she also grew up playing soccer and figure skating. She also danced and even dove for the Bellingham High School swim team before graduating in 2004.

But shortly after turning 10, when her family lived in Wisconsin for a year, VanLaanen began to suffer bouts of vertigo, dyslexia, fatigue and other symptoms. These bouts normally didn't last for long, but long enough to keep a regularly active teenager on the shelf.

"I started showing symptoms when I was 10, and doctors couldn't figure out what was going on," VanLaanen said in a phone interview. "When I was 14, they were still fumbling around trying to figure out what was going on with my body. It went from everything from being misdiagnosed with this illness to doctors telling me there was nothing wrong."

That was only the start of it.

It was a mystery that would last 10 years longer, as doctors continued to misdiagnose her and tell her she was just fine.

"With my health allowing, I would just continue to be an athlete," VanLaanen said.

In fact, she went on to become a professional freeskier and even won a 2009 World Cup event in the women's halfpipe.

But at times, she still wouldn't feel right.

"I didn't want to stop living my life," VanLaanen said. "I just grew to live with the ailments. Through my pro career, it became apparent they would only hold me back some of the time. They had no answer for me, so we just pushed it to the side."

She had to lie in bed an entire summer after one doctor diagnosed her with mono, and the next year she was misdiagnosed with chronic mono.

In fact, one doctor even suggested that her symptoms were strictly psychological.

"That was really damaging to my confidence both as a human being and as an athlete," VanLaanen said. "Mentally, you always want to be in a strong place, and it made me question myself."

But in the fall of 2009, VanLaanen could no longer push what she was experiencing to the side. She needed confirmation that this wasn't something simply in her head - it was something in her entire body.

An aunt actually picked up the preliminary diagnosis.

"My aunt was watching this documentary called 'Under Our Skin,' when she saw the symptoms they followed and recognized they were symptoms I was battling," VanLaanen said. "She gave me a call and told me to go to the doctor's office and ask them to test for Lyme."

Two weeks later in November of 2009, tests showed that's exactly what VanLaanen had.

Lyme disease is caused by bacteria transmitted by the bite of an infected tick. Doctors believe VanLaanen contracted it from a bite when she was 10, meaning it went undiagnosed for about 14 years.

Typical symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, include fever, headache, fatigue and a skin rash. If left untreated, the infection can spread to a person's joints, the heart and the nervous system.

"It was a really challenging time," VanLaanen's mother, Allain VanLaanen, said in a phone interview. "My heart was breaking for her, like any mother's would. There was such relief to finally know what was causing all these symptoms she'd been having. The hard part was realizing that there was something pretty significant going on with her."

Even more difficult was realizing it was going to take a significant sacrifice to get better.

"My doctors were pretty frank with me," Angeli said. "They said park skiing and halfpipe were not a possibility while I was being treated. I was going to have to take at least three years off."

In a sport that was growing and evolving as quickly as freestyle skiing, they might as well have told her she was going to miss the next decade.

"She's had her share of normal sports injuries," Angeli's brother, Cachaulo VanLaanen, said in a phone interview. "Those are easier to deal with, because you know an injury recovery schedule. You can manage, because you know what to expect. Lyme affects you in so many different ways. Symptoms came and went and came and went. Because of that, the mental battle was the biggest challenge. She had to try to keep a sense of hope that things would get better if she kept making healthy choices to get her body back in shape."

Finally, that hope was rewarded when she returned to competition in August of 2012.

"I wanted to go and see if I still had what it took to do this and see what I wanted to do, and I ended up getting second place," Angeli said. "That was super amazing and confirmed that I could still do it."

Not only that, she continued to improve and get better - both physically and on the slopes.

Last year she placed ninth overall and third among skiers from the United States in the Association of Freestyle Professionals women's halfpipe standings.

"Before being diagnosed in remission, I honestly could not remember what it was like to feel completely healthy," Angeli said. "I was so used to being sick, that was my normal. ... I imagine the progress and success I've had the past year, that's the athlete I've always been. I'm seeing in myself the athlete I've always been."

But Angeli will never forget her struggle to get to this point.

Inspired by the troubles diagnosing her own disease, Angeli last year raised $18,000 to kick start funding for a documentary called "LymeLight" to help bring awareness to the disease and its symptoms.

This past summer, she met with researchers at Harvard to share her story, an effort that helped the institution green light funding for Lyme research.

Angeli also serves as a spokesperson for the LymeLight Foundation, an organization that provides grants to enable eligible children and young adults with Lyme disease to receive proper treatment and medication, while also raising awareness about Lyme disease.

"In true fashion for Angeli, she took having this disease as a challenge and met it head on," Allain said. "She found a good treatment for her, and she got better. Now she's doing everything she can to raise awareness about it. I'm so proud of her."

It's a commitment Angeli hopes to carry with her to a world-wide audience should she qualify for a spot on the freeskiing team the United States will take to Sochi, Russia, in February for the Olympics.

"It would be an incredible honor as an athlete and a human to be able to go," Angeli said. "As an activist, I'd get a chance to tell my story to more people and spread the work about Lyme disease and the effects it can have on people. Having a platform like that is bigger than myself. It would be the ultimate triumph over Lyme disease."

Reach David Rasbach at david.rasbach@bellinghamherald.com or 360-715-2286.

Reach DAVID RASBACH at david.rasbach@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2271.

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