Column: Bellingham should savor this Olympic moment

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDFebruary 19, 2014 

Before you go to bed tonight, make sure to program your DVR.

Better yet, set your alarm clock and haul yourself out of bed a little earlier than usual on Thursday morning, Feb. 20.

This is an event that deserves to be watched in real time by Whatcom County residents.

At 6:30 a.m. (PST), Bellingham's own Angeli VanLaanen will take her qualifying runs in the Winter Olympic debut of women's freeski halfpipe at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, located about an hour away from Sochi, Russia.

Should she qualify - and she should; she's fifth in the latest world International Ski Federation rankings - VanLaanen will compete in the event finals scheduled for a 9:30 a.m. (PST) start.

The only way to watch VanLaanen and 23 more of the top women's halfpipe skiers in the world compete live is via online streaming at nbcolympics.com/live-extra.

For those who choose to sleep in - and you know who you are - or aren't able watch at work, CBC is scheduled to show highlights of the halfpipe competition at noon, while NBC will fold its own event coverage into its Primetime show, set to air between 8 and 11:30 p.m.

However you watch it, this is a truly unique opportunity for Whatcom County.

Sure, the Winter Olympics were held four years ago just an hour to the north in Vancouver, B.C., and yes, Whatcom County claimed Karen Thatcher on the silver medal-winning U.S. women's hockey team as our own at those Games. While we were all proud of Thatcher and what she and her team accomplished in 2010, the Massachusetts native didn't move to Blaine until 2006 so that she could play hockey with the B.C. Breakers.

We are just as proud of this year's U.S. men's hockey star T.J. Oshie, who was born in Mount Vernon and grew up in Stanwood and Everett before he and his family moved to Minnesota.

But this is different.

VanLaanen is about as Bellingham as you can get.

The 28-year-old was born here - only the fourth Whatcom County native to make the Olympics in any event and the first since 1972. She is the first Winter Olympian and the first female Olympic athlete in any event to be born in Bellingham.

VanLaanen attended Parkview Elementary and Whatcom Hills Waldorf School before graduating from Bellingham High School in 2004. She quite literally grew up on the slopes of Mt. Baker Ski Area, and it was there that her dreams to become a professional skier were nurtured - dreams that would eventually evolve into a desire to compete in the Winter Olympics.

Though she moved to Colorado in 2005 and later Utah to be near the heart of her sport, VanLaanen has never forgotten where she came from.

"I'm proud to be from Bellingham," she said in a phone interview after qualifying for the Olympics last month. "I'm excited to represent our town."

And Bellingham and all of Whatcom County should be ecstatic to have her do so.

Those who watched her grow up speak about her captivating smile and warm disposition - qualities that can still be felt in conversations with her, even when speaking over the phone.

And VanLaanen has a story that would make you want to root for her whether she was the girl next door - which she just happens to be - a complete stranger from the other side of the United States or even an athlete from any of the other 87 countries competing in this year's Olympics.

Less than five years ago, VanLaanen was diagnosed with Lyme disease, a bacterial illness that caused vertigo, dyslexia, and other symptoms. She contracted the disease when at age 10 she was bitten by an infected tick, but it took doctors 14 years to properly diagnose what was ailing her.

While finally having a diagnosis was terrific, especially after one doctor suggested her symptoms might just be a mental issue - something no athlete wants to hear - that was only half the battle. Doctors then suggested a treatment for the disease that meant stripping VanLaanen of the sport she loved for three years, allowing a combination of Western and Eastern medicines to work.

Despite all the difficulties, VanLaanen never sulked about the disease or asked "Why me?"

Instead, she met it the same way she takes on a halfpipe - head-on.

Symptom free, VanLaanen was able to return to the halfpipe last season, though she quickly had to play catch-up in a sport that is evolving at a sprinter's pace.

VanLaanen has since become a spokesperson for the LymeLight Foundation to help raise awareness about the disease that afflicted her for so many years and also helped raise money for "Lymelife," a documentary about her battle with the disease.

She's had to show that same fight and determination during the grueling qualification process the U.S. Ski Team used to select the representatives it would send to Sochi.

Not only did VanLaanen have to compete against a collection of some of the best freeskiers in the world to earn one of four spots on the U.S. team, she also had a bout with the flu before one of the five qualifying events and suffered a hard training crash that left her with a pulled quad muscle in her right leg and a sore back the day before the penultimate qualifying event.

But one day after placing eighth in that event, VanLaanen turned in one of her best runs in Park City, Utah- one good enough to not only score her a victory, but also secure an Olympic spot.

"It has been amazing - my friends, family and the community, the fans, everyone has been so supportive," VanLaanen said of her comeback. "It's been really the most amazing show of love I've ever experienced. People have really believed in me and thanked me for sharing my story. I feel a lot of times, I questioned if I would be able to come back to this. I hope people see if you give it your all, it really doesn't matter if you win or lose. In my eyes, if you do that, you're a winner."

A winner is exactly what VanLaanen is, and it doesn't matter if she's standing on the podium at the end of Thursday or if she fails to make it out of the qualifying rounds.

And that's why Bellingham and all of Whatcom County should make sure to share in her moment. Even though she's quite literally a half a world away - Sochi is 12 time zones ahead of Bellingham - it's time for the City of Subdued Excitement to unleash a 12th Man-like effort and let her hear our support. She is an athlete that is definitely worth it.

Go for gold, Angeli! You're already a champion in our eyes!

WOMEN'S FREESKIING HALFPIPE

Qualifying: 6:30 a.m. (PST) Thursday, Feb. 20

Final: 9:30 a.m. (PST) Thursday, Feb. 20

Site: Rosa Khutor Extreme Park

Scheduled TV: Noon-1 p.m., Channel 27; 8-11:30 p.m., Channel 5 (NBC Primetime)

Live streaming: nbcolympics.com/live-extra

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

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