On Jan. 18, skier Angeli Vanlaanen locked down a spot on the new U.S. Olympic halfpipe team with a win at the Grand Prix in Salt Lake City. Vanlaanen's victory, and ensuing naming, is particularly poignant: In addition to being one of the longest-standing skiers in the game, she's also been battling Lyme disease for the majority of her professional skiing career.
Vanlaanen has been skiing at halfpipe events since 2005. The Bellingham, Washington, native was at the forefront of today’s freestyle skiing wave that will be on display in Sochi. In those early days of competition she was often going head-to-head against the men. But as more women flocked to freestyle skiing Vanlaanen emerged as a leading figure. She won the World Cup Superpipe in 2009.
That same season, however, she was enduring bouts of fainting, weakness, vertigo, and debilitating pain. They were problems she’d had for a while, but were getting worse. After a slew of wrong turns, doctors finally figured out that she'd been bitten by a tick on a family vacation as a child. Vanlaanen was diagnosed with late-stage Lyme disease.
Over the next three years, she pulled back from competing, and skiing in general, to try to get healthy. Lyme disease, which is a bacterial infection, can be easy to treat if it's caught early, but if it isn't detected until later, it can be nearly impossible to get rid of. Vanlaanen was far enough along that even daily activities became a struggle.
Vanlaanen was off the snow, even immobilized for periods of time, until March 2011, when she was cleared to ski again. Her fight back to health included taking a mix of antibiotics, strict diet changes, and a lot of time. At one point, she was hooked up to an IV for six months, and for a long time she couldn’t even run around her block, but by the end of last season, after not competing since 2009, she was ninth in the AFP's world halfpipe rankings. She podiumed in almost every event she entered this year.
In 2013, she made a documentary, “LymeLight,” about her fight with Lyme disease, including her frustration in trying to diagnose it, and she's sill working to raise awareness and money for research.
Despite her medical history, or maybe because being out of the game kept her relatively injury-free, Vanlaanen will be one of the oldest competitors in her discipline come Sochi, and one of the only ones who has been around since freeskiers started petitioning to get into the Olympics. Halfpipe skier Jen Hudak, who has been one of the most vocal proponents, had to bow out because of knee injury. Keri Herman, who is of similar age, made the slopestyle team, but on the men's side the athletes who have been there since the beginning, like Tanner Hall and Simon Dumont, failed to make the cut.
Vanlaanen says she's humbled that she was one of the athletes to make it. "It means the world to me to be a part of this inaugural team going to Sochi for the first Olympics that we're included in," she said. "So many people have put so much into making this sport get to this level where we're included. It's an honor."
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