Angeli VanLaanen skis during the halfpipe skiing finals during the Visa Freestyle International, a FIS Freestyle World Cup event, at Park City Mountain Resort Jan. 31, 2009 in Park City, Utah.
If you don’t know 27-year-old freeskier Angeli VanLaanen, that’s okay. You will. The Olympic hopeful is more concerned with you knowing about Lyme disease — the very thing that caused her to take a break from her sport for the last three years.
At 10 years old, a very active VanLaanen was living in Green Bay, Wis., when she started having mystery illnesses, things “doctors would diagnose as something as simple as a sinus infection.” The only problem, she said, is that “the normal treatment plans didn’t work.” Then the fainting began. Dyslexia. Fatigue. Doctors were stumped, she said.
“It made it really challenging for them to pinpoint what was going on with my health because it was such a fluctuation of symptoms,” VanLaanen said. “And a lot of the symptoms mimicked other conditions, some quite simple, but some more extreme like multiple sclerosis and worrying that I had a brain tumor. Plus, we never knew if some of the symptoms were a result of my ski career and the stress I was putting on my body — all the traveling and that lifestyle. And when I started developing neurological symptoms like blurry vision, vertigo, and muscle spasms — an array of things that prohibited my progression in skiing — I eventually had to sit out from competing for three years.”
|Angeli VanLaanen skis during qualification for the FIS Freestyle Ski
Halfpipe World Cup at the Sprint U.S. Grand Prix at Park City
Mountain on Jan. 31, 2013 in Park City, Utah.
But everything changed in 2009 – 14 years after her first health problem — when her aunt saw a documentary called Under Our Skin about Lyme disease and what to look for.
“My aunt saw a lot of those symptoms in the film in my health struggles over the years and asked me to fill out a questionnaire,” VanLaanen said. “In the end I had so many symptoms it was a no-brainer that I needed to get checked for it.”
Unfortunately it’s not as easy as just going to the doctors and getting a simple blood test. “Lyme disease is a smart bacteria that is hard to pick up in a blood test, and most tests are not going to be 100-percent accurate,” she said. “Often people will get a blood test and it will be negative, and then they’ll get another and it will be negative again, but if they were to do it again it might be positive. That’s similar to how mine were. Which is why a lot of people will get one blood test and call it quits. But in reality they’ll have the disease and not know it.”
VanLaanen said the way she got tested was a test kit her aunt sent away for that goes to a special lab for testing.
The fact that there’s not a 100-percent accurate way to test, VanLaanen said is one of the biggest problems with the disease and getting people diagnosed. “Nobody thought to test me for 14 years,” she said. It is also the reason why she is telling her story in the new documentary about the disease, LymeLight, which can be viewed here.
The goal, she said, is “to have as many people see it as possible — just to get the awareness out there. A lot of people have heard about Lyme disease — and know that you can get it from a tick bite — but they don’t know much about it.”
The movie was also the reason she got connected with a Lyme disease foundation of the same name. She has since become a spokesperson for them and helps raise money in order to give grants to families with children battling Lyme disease who can’t afford treatment. “Most people — me included — have to pay 70 percent of treatment out of pocket, so this foundation really helps,” she said.
It has been three years since VanLaanen was first diagnosed, and she is happy to say that her disease is in remission. And for her that means she gets to go back to doing what she loves: skiing.
“I took three years off from halfpipe competition and this past winter I got back onto the circuit,” VanLaanen said. “I was ranked ninth overall in the world, which allowed me to go to World Championships, where I placed sixth. I feel better than ever now. I’m finally progressing again after so many years of just struggling and it’s exciting.”
But her ultimate goal is to make the U.S. Olympic Team and make history in Sochi where halfpipe skiing will be included in the Winter Games for the first time.
“It’s always been my dream to become an Olympian and have the opportunity to compete on that level,” she said. “That’s my main focus right now. I’ve got all my old tricks back and I’m putting new tricks into my run and finally able to move forward now that I’m healthy. My goal for Sochi is just to make the team and do my best. If everything comes together it could be a really great year for me.”
Just the thought of it is enough to make her emotional.
“Oh, I just got misty-eyed,” she said. “It would mean the world to me to be an Olympian. Being sick for a number of years and having to take that break from skiing was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I love the sport. And I love pushing myself, and doing that again is the best feeling. But realizing my childhood dream of being an Olympian… I don’t even know how to put that into words. It would be the ultimate triumph over Lyme disease!"