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.”