~~Interview with Angeli VanLaanen
By Jennifer Crystal
Lyme patients in the throes of illness often seek stories of people who have come out on the other side of the long, dark tunnel of tick-borne disease. One of the greatest examples of this type of inspiration is Angeli Vanlaanen, a professional freeskier who, after battling through two and a half years of intense Lyme disease treatment that forced her to put her career on hold, emerged a contender for the 2014 Winter Olympics.
VanLaanen remembers getting tick bites as a child growing up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, but didn’t think much of them, especially after her family moved to Washington State. She quickly took to the slopes of Mt. Baker, excelling in backcountry and freestyle terrain-park skiing. After graduating high school in 2005, she moved to Colorado to train in slopestyle and halfpipe. Though she went on to compete at the X Games and win New Zealand Open and World Cup gold medals, Vanlaanen’s body wasn’t quite keeping up with her outward success.
As illustrated in Vanlaanen’s powerful film “Lymelight,” she wrestled for years with unexplained physical and neurological symptoms. She received many incorrect diagnoses, including the one Lyme patients hear all too often: “it’s all in your head.” As an athlete trained to push through obstacles, Vanlaanen swept her symptoms under the carpet, until they began to compromise her ability to perform. Luckily, Vanlaanen’s aunt had just seen the documentary “Under Our Skin,” and suggested her niece see a Lyme specialist. Finally, in 2009—ten years after her initial tick bites—the professional skier was correctly diagnosed with Lyme disease.
“I’d had Lyme for so long that I didn’t know what healthy was,” Vanlaanen says now, after two years of intense treatment that included rotations of multiple antibiotics, chelation therapy, natural and homeopathic remedies and dietary restrictions. Vanlaanen feels she now performs at “150%, compared to what [she] used to be,” but getting to that point required that she halt her career at a time when her peers were in their heyday. “The biggest challenge was having to take a step back,” she says. Her mother Allain adds in “Lymelight”, “When you’re changing a lifestyle and you’re surrounded by people who aren’t there, it’s sometimes hard to hold your own.”
Ever a fighter, Vanlaanen did not give up; as she pushed through treatment that often left her bedridden, she tried to find something every day to get her excited about getting back to her previous life. “I had to find new activities to keep me motivated,” says Vanlaanen, who developed quieter passions such as painting, yoga and meditation.
Those activities and techniques still keep her grounded today, as she once again soars above a halfpipe, training for this December’s Olympic trials. She even meditates on the chairlift. “It relaxes my body,” she explains, “and helps my nervous system calm down between the adrenaline of runs.” Though Vanlaanen is now chemical free and considers herself cured, she knows she must stay “really aware and on top it…I will need to be really strict and health conscious for the rest of my life.” Thanks to her vigilance, Vanlaanen has been symptom free for a year and a half, and is appreciating her time on the slopes more than ever. “To be able to do what you love again is just awesome,” she says.
Vanlaanen hopes her story will continue to inspire others. She notes that some of her friends didn’t know what to think when they heard about her diagnosis, but after watching “Lymelight” suddenly understood the complexity and severity of Lyme disease. Vanlaanen often compares Lyme to cancer, a serious disease people understand, because “it can be just as harmful…it can take the same time out of someone’s life, and the remission is similar.”
Here’s hoping that Vanlaanen’s own remission will help earn her a spot in the upcoming Olympics. After the Games, she is planning to tour for Lyme awareness. The Lyme community will be cheering her on then as loudly as it does now!