Home News Allysa Seely Opens U...

Allysa Seely Opens Up About Health Challenges Past And Present

By Steve Drumwright | Dec. 23, 2020, 9:37 a.m. (ET)

Allysa Seely poses for a portrait during the Team USA Tokyo 2020 shoot on Nov. 19, 2019 in West Hollywood, Calif.


“I am an elite athlete.”

Allysa Seely is one of a select group of people who can say that. Seely won gold at the Paralympic Games Rio 2016 as Paratriathlon made its debut as a medal event. She is a three-time ITU Paratriathlon World Championships gold medalist (2015, 2016, 2018) and a two-time silver medalist (2017, 2019). In ITU World Paratriathlon events, she has 12 gold medals, three silvers and two bronzes.

But even elite athletes have flaws. One she can control, another she can’t — her health.

“These past few months have been a nightmare,” Seely said.

It started in 2010, when she was diagnosed with Chiari II malformation, basilar invagination and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which affect her spine, brain and connective tissue. Those afflictions allowed her to compete as a Paratriathlete and she won a bronze medal at the 2012 ITU Paratriathlon World Championships in her debut.

A year later, though, Seely had to have her left leg amputated below the knee following complications and increased spasticity in her foot. She returned to competition in a new classification and continued to dominate on the world stage, highlighted by her gold medal in Rio.

In 2020 — a year that has brought pain and hardship to people across the world due to the COVID-19 pandemic — Seely almost didn’t make it.

On Jan. 2, as she was preparing to qualify for the Tokyo Games, she had an infection in her left leg and required surgery. When she resumed training, she only made it through three more days before waking up to the same leg being four times its normal size.

Another infection. Another surgery. But the 31-year-old was going to barely miss her chance to qualify and defend her gold medal. Her competitive side took over and Seely convinced doctors to remove her stitches the night before the mid-March qualifying event. She hadn’t been training for about two months due to the surgery. But the Paralympic Games were on the line.

Enter COVID-19. The qualifier for Tokyo was canceled — and soon the Games themselves would follow — and the world basically came to a standstill. From March until July, everything was fairly steady for Seely, quarantined in Colorado Springs, Colorado, with her two dogs. Another infection put her back in the hospital. But when she started training again, Seely didn’t feel right.

“I got to a point where I was struggling to run a quarter of a mile,” Seely said.

Doctors were unable to diagnose the latest problem, so she went out to see specialists. It was at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston where Seely was told she had endocarditis, a life-threatening inflammation of the heart’s inner lining, as well as a blood clot in her heart. Either one is extremely dangerous on its own.

To complicate matters, Seely said she had a rare reaction where her immune system was “attacking” the antibiotics and the cells the antibiotics were in. Doctors were worried her immune system would attack her heart. It was yet another destabilization to a fragile body.

“It quite possibly was the sickest I've ever been in my life, which is saying something,” Seely said, “because I've had life-threatening experiences multiple times.”

The doctors’ solution? They withdrew the antibiotics to get her immune system to stop fighting against her and “just hope” she would improve. Her symptoms were treated and, slowly, Seely stabilized.

“I think everybody that knows me, knows I'm like, super-feisty,” Seely said. “I fight so much to be able to live the life I want to live. And there's definitely been days during this latest struggle that I lost that fire, that fight inside.”

She spent from the end of September to the second week of November in and out of the hospital. She was able to be visited by her mom, Debbie, who she hadn’t seen since COVID hit, and one of her dogs, Mowgli.

“I am starting to feel better, but not in terms of where I was before all this began,” Seely said.

Seely has remained in Houston and says she is at about 50 percent of her normal self. She has resumed working out, even running and riding the bike but not yet swimming. As she continues to build herself back up, she is also receiving treatment for other chronic conditions and will stay in Houston until mid-January.

While no competition schedule for 2021 has been released, Seely is hoping to be back in regular training mode when she leaves Texas, with her eyes on defending her gold medal in Tokyo.

“It's gonna be an uphill battle. I'm not gonna lie,” Seely said. “I mean, I have had a rough year. I also saw some amazing gains in fitness this year. And now I feel like I'm back to square one.”

It's gonna be an uphill battle. I'm not gonna lie. I mean, I have had a rough year.

Allysa Seely, Paratriathlon

Keeping A Secret
As terrifying as that chapter of Seely’s story is, there is another part that has its own importance.

Health scares aren’t anything new to Seely. She has been dealing with major ones since 2010 when her first diagnosis was given.

But there have been more private battles that she kept from even her closest friends. Keeping quiet about other maladies comes from her competitive spirit. If she told her friends, then her ailments would become public and her rivals would know she had a weakness.

As a Paralympic gold medalist and winner of three of the past five world championships, her competitive armor would have dents.

Her story might be even more fantastic when you know what she hasn’t revealed.

“My first world championship win came two days after I was discharged from the hospital for two weeks,” Seely said. “And the day after I got discharged from the hospital for three weeks, I got on a plane to London and raced in London and the next weekend in France. And so I'm not unaccustomed to these challenges. I'm not unaccustomed to being in and out of the hospital. I'm not unaccustomed to having to deal with these health concerns every day. But I think this time, my biggest weapon, per se, is that I'm not doing it alone.”

Not anymore. Seely has vowed to be more transparent about her health situation and posts frequently on her Instagram account, but often only alluding to her situation, never really giving the dire details. But she feels now is the time to knock down that wall and tell more about what has been going on when she isn’t swimming, biking and running in competitions.

“I thought that if my competitors knew what I was going through, that they would see it as a weak point, and it would give them an advantage over me,” Seely said. “And I also just felt like it didn't fit. My story didn't fit with the story of an elite athlete. My body doesn't fit what we make out to be the body (of an elite athlete). I think I just needed to redefine the standards of what an elite athlete’s body is so that I could see myself as just that because I am an elite athlete. And this is my reality — it may not be everybody else's reality, but it is my reality. I have achieved some of my biggest dreams with this body and I want others to know that they can achieve their dreams, too.”

Like any world-class athlete, nutrition is key. But with Seely’s health issues and physical demands, nutrition has been a challenge. Typically, she was strong at the beginning of the season, but was worn down and had lost weight by the end.

Following multiple surgeries on her digestive tract, Seely had gotten all the way down to 72 pounds. She began working with a dietician in 2017 and also gave in to the realization that she could no longer take her food orally and needed to use tubes to bring nutrition into her body.

“I've never actually, I've never spoken about it,” Seely said of speaking up for the first time. “My teammates don't know. Nobody really knew. My closest friends didn't know. Because it was something that I just never was comfortable in talking about or telling people. I think when we see athletes, you see a picture-perfect body. Our bodies are our tool and my tool is broken. That was something that has been hard to come to terms with, I think.

“Then I also think that there's a really big stigma in the medical field and with the general public about people that have complex chronic illness and what we can do or what we should do. Many times, I have been told by doctors I am either too sick to be doing what I am or not as sick as my medical record would make me out to be. Because of this it was something that I never felt comfortable talking about with even my closest friends. But that long, bulleted list of diagnoses on my medical chart is my reality. Being fed by tubes and IVs, being in and out of the hospital is my reality and hiding it from the world became so heavy carrying it by myself all the time. I didn’t want to do it anymore. And I think there's something to be said for being able to tell our own stories and tell the world, ‘This is what I'm going through and despite it all this is what I've been able to achieve.’ I think other people going through similar things need to be able to see that their lifestyle, their lives are not defined by their diagnosis. Their life isn't defined by what a medical professional tells them. Their life is defined how they want to define it, if they're willing to fight for it.”

As she prepares to turn 32 and aiming for another Paralympic gold medal, Seely is thankful for the support she has received, especially this year as she gave in and became more open with those around her. It was really becoming more self-aware of her place in the world and how she could affect others.

“Some of my diagnoses are public, they are easy to find on the internet,” Seely said. “Others I've never talked about and I’ve never talked about how they affect me, my day-to-day life inside and outside of training and competing. But you know, other individuals would see them and they would message me and ask questions about how I have managed this or that, and I, and I realized that there needs to be somebody that is able to speak about their experiences, and able to share their story so others with similar struggles can use what I have done to hopefully help them live the life they want, maybe the life the doctors told them couldn’t have, the life they were too scared to try and fight for. 

“If they can see someone else has defied what the medical professionals have said, maybe they will believe they can do it, too. If they can see they go through the same battles I do and what I’ve accomplished, I hope that inspires them to fight for their dreams, too, whatever they may be and realize they too can accomplish them.”

Steve Drumwright

Steve Drumwright is a journalist based in Murrieta, California. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

Related Athletes

head shot

Allysa Seely