3 Famous Olympic athletes share how they manage Crohn’s disease
Their stories are worth knowing.
Managing a chronic condition such as Crohn’s disease can be more than uncomfortable and disruptive to your daily life. However, you can stay active and pursue the activities you enjoy with the right treatment plan. Famous Olympic athletes with Crohn’s disease such as Kathleen Baker, Alyxandria Treasure, and Carrie Johnson are all examples of people who have achieved remarkable goals while living with the condition.
Crohn’s is a type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) that creates inflammation in your digestive tract and causes abdominal pain and other symptoms. When Crohn’s disease is active, meaning someone experiences symptoms, a person may have fatigue, severe diarrhea, and even become malnourished from not absorbing nutrients, according to the Mayo Clinic. Understandably, these symptoms could make it incredibly hard to do your daily routine—let alone a workout. However, having Crohn’s disease doesn’t mean you need to avoid being active, says Alyssa M. Parian, M.D., an associate clinical director of gastroenterology and hepatology at Johns Hopkins University. Dr. Parian encourages all of her patients with Crohn’s disease to aim for at least 30 minutes of activity, five times per week. “You should continue to work with your providers to feel good and to be able to go out and do all of the things that you want to do,” she tells SELF.
There is no cure for Crohn’s disease, but medications, therapies, and lifestyle changes can make it possible for people with Crohn’s to pursue their goals—as evidenced by Baker, Treasure, and Johnson. Of course, not everyone desires to become an Olympic athlete, but these three show that it is possible to have a full life with Crohn’s disease. Here are their stories:
1. Swimmer Kathleen Baker tried several Crohn’s disease treatments to find what works best.
Kathleen Baker, Olympic gold medalist and former world record holder in the 100-meter backstroke and 4×100 meter relay, was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2010. Now 24 years old, the elite swimmer is an ambassador with the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation, where she spreads awareness about the condition at events. “I never wanted to be labeled by my illness,” Baker wrote in her LinkedIn ambassador volunteer description. “Making the Olympic Team gave me the courage and the platform to share my story so I could hopefully inspire others,” she said.
Following her diagnosis in 2010, Baker told the New York Times that she lost a lot of weight and was constantly exhausted. (People with Crohn’s disease may lose weight either because diarrhea prevents them from absorbing nutrients or because they feel too uncomfortable to eat.) To manage her symptoms, Baker worked with her doctor to find medications that controlled her flare-ups. “Crohn’s can have unpredictable flares, but the best way to minimize the flares is to maintain the medications keeping them in remission,” Dr. Parian explains.
Baker’s path to controlling the disease took some time. After a daily routine of taking more than a dozen pills, Baker was prescribed intravenous infusion treatments for her Crohn’s disease, according to the New York Times, and later switched to self-administered biweekly injections. “I found doctors who weren’t going to be just like, ‘You’re Kathleen with Crohn’s disease.’ I need to be Kathleen the swimmer with Crohn’s disease,” Baker told the New York Times in 2016, ahead of her appearance in the 2016 Rio Olympics.
2. High jumper Alyxandria Treasure was hospitalized with Crohn’s disease.
Canadian track-and-field athlete Alyxandria Treasure, 29, competed in the 2016 Rio Olympics when she was 23. Getting there certainly wasn’t easy, but Treasure was able to work through challenges, including managing Crohn’s disease, and advance to the high jump final. Treasure was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at 17—which isn’t uncommon as many people with the condition are diagnosed before age 30, according to the Mayo Clinic. (However, people of any age can develop the condition.)
Treasure explained to The Globe and Mail in 2017 that she became really sick before finding the right treatment. “I ended up in the hospital in my college freshman year and had to drop out of school,” she told the outlet. Like Baker, Treasure tried several medications before finding one that worked for her. Unfortunately, this was all happening a year before the Rio Olympics.
“It was the biggest year of my life, and I took the gamble of switching to a new medication, an injection I could take with me on my travels,” Treasure told The Globe and Mail. “Thankfully, everything fell into place and I was able to train at a higher level.”
In addition to medication, making dietary changes helped Treasure support her rigorous training while managing Crohn’s disease. Although there is no diet that works for everyone with Crohn’s disease, some people may have a hard time digesting certain things like dairy or high-fiber foods, according to the Mayo Clinic.
For Treasure, complex carbohydrates and vegetables are difficult to digest, she explained in a March 2020 article published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. “I have found that I have to use meal replacements to ensure I have enough energy for training. Luckily, I can tolerate protein, which supports my recovery,” she wrote. Although this worked for Treasure, it’s best to work with your physician if you can to determine if you could benefit from making dietary changes.
Despite her experience, Treasure says Crohn’s disease shaped her into who she is. “Being able to work through low points has given me the confidence that I can do it again,” she told The Globe and Mail.
3. Sprint kayaker Carrie Johnson visited five doctors before being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease.
Qualifying for one Olympics is an incredible accomplishment. But Johnson, 37, qualified for and competed in an impressive three—2004, 2008, and 2012—Summer Olympics while managing Crohn’s disease. Less than a year before her first Olympic Games experience, Johnson felt fatigued and experienced severe gastrointestinal distress, so she sought medical attention. After six months of medical appointments to five different doctors, Johnson was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease after visiting a gastroenterologist, Sports Illustrated reported.
Johnson’s experience with getting diagnosed isn’t unusual because Crohn’s disease affects people in different ways. Without a universal diagnostic test for Crohn’s disease, it can be hard for doctors to diagnose people who have subtle symptoms. Getting diagnosed with Crohn’s typically involves having a combination of tests, such as blood tests, stool studies, CT scans, MRI scans, and colonoscopy, according to the Mayo Clinic.
“They [the doctors] just kept trying to treat the symptoms for a long time,” Johnson told Sports Illustrated in 2012. “I think the worst part was not having a diagnosis immediately…[but then] I knew what it was, it had a name and there was something specific that I was dealing with,” she told the outlet.
Johnson says that managing her condition requires being vigilant about taking her medication and watching for flares. “You’re continually trying to manage it and watch for the warning signs,” Johnson told the Los Angeles Times in 2012. “That’s all you can do.”
Even if you aren’t passionate about sports, these Olympians show that it is absolutely possible to continue doing the things you love with Crohn’s disease.