Pro snowboarder Spencer O’Brien overcomes odds of early arthritis

Fresh off a third-place finish in the 2017 Burton U.S. Open slopestyle competition, Olympian and five-time X Games medalist Spencer O’Brien is arguably one of the sport’s most progressive and talented riders. But that’s the stuff of headlines.

Spencer O'Brien with snowboard

Snowboarder Spencer O’Brien was diagnosed with a genetic form of arthritis at just 25. Photo: Courtesy of Kari Rowe

Behind the scenes, the Canadian, 29, has fought her way through painful rheumatoid arthritis since a 2013 diagnosis, just two months before the Sochi Winter Olympics.

The year before O’Brien’s genetic condition was identified was torture. Advancing swelling and stiffness made it nearly impossible to get out of bed, let alone launch off of a lofty, icy slopestyle feature.

Spencer O'Brien big air

Doing this was almost unthinkable leading up to O’Brien’s showing at Sochi. Photo: Courtesy of Sani Alibabic

“I was like an 80-year-old woman, but I was only 25,” O’Brien told GrindTV. “I’d go to the gym and have morning stiffness for five hours. It was mind-blowing that I let it go on that long.”

But it wasn’t surprising. Onset of her arthritis was slow, it often presented as injury and no one in O’Brien’s immediate family had it. It was hard to diagnose.

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“In the morning I would have creaky, achy knees, but it would subside. You adapt to it,” she says. “I thought I was just getting older. I do an impact sport, so I thought it was normal aches and pains. You get blinded by the pain.”

Spencer O'Brien on X Games podium

How O’Brien (center) continued competing with pain and inflammation is still a mystery. Photo: Courtesy of Sani Alibabic

In fact, the arthritic inflammation of O’Brien’s joints was especially awful in her shoulders. By Olympic trials time, she couldn’t lift her arms over her head. There were cortisone shots, a progressing cyst in her knee and scary joint inflammation in her toes.

“I’d have to prep myself to lift my head off the pillow,” she says. “Putting my feet on the ground was so hard.”

From trauma to treatment
Once doctors finally nailed the issue, O’Brien was exhausted mentally and physically. Amazingly, she has continued to compete as she’s dialed in medical treatment over the years.

Now she injects a refrigerated shot in her thigh once a month for prolonged relief. While the immune suppressant helps ward off the body’s inflammatory response, it also makes O’Brien more susceptible to infection, which means she can get sick easily.

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Even small cuts, if they were to infect the blood or bones, could be deadly.

Spencer O'Brien headshot

Struggling to get out of bed, O’Brien says she felt 80 when she was only 25 years old. Photo: Courtesy of Kari Rowe

“I’m a young woman, so I don’t want to be on this injection forever,” O’Brien says. But for now, it’s working. There’s more hope: Rheumatoid arthritis can go into remission. However, the trade-off is going off the medicine, and O’Brien is not ready to test that just yet.

An elimination diet is another alternative — something she’s researching. But first there’s more snowboarding to prepare for, which, for O’Brien, includes extensive dryland training — more than most in her sport will do.

Gym training with Spencer O'Brien

O’Brien’s eyes are set on the Olympics. Off-season training will include plenty of gym time. Photo: Courtesy of Ashley Barker

“I’m focused on the [2018 PyeongChang, South Korea] Olympics now. It would be amazing to go again for Canada,” says O’Brien, who, newly diagnosed at Sochi, didn’t even make it to the opening and closing ceremonies.

“I finally feel my age again,” O’Brien says, “like a fully able-bodied person.”