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Thursday, February 6, 2014

Freeskier Overcomes Lyme Disease To Make Olympic Team

Angeli VanLaanen practices in the superpipe during last week's Winter X Games competition in Aspen, Colo. (Flip McCririck/ESPN Images)

Angeli VanLaanen practices in the superpipe during last week’s Winter X Games competition in Aspen, Colo. (Flip McCririck/ESPN Images)

Being named to the U.S. Olympic Team completes a remarkable comeback for a pro skier from Bellingham, Washington. Angeli VanLaanen overcame Lyme disease and a three year hiatus for treatment to punch her ticket to Sochi in ski halfpipe.

Lyme disease is an unusual diagnosis in the Pacific Northwest, according to area health departments. That may be why VanLaanen’s strength-sapping symptoms went misdiagnosed for more than a decade. From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Tom Banse of Northwest News Network has her story.

Video: VanLaanen wins run at final U.S. Olympic qualifier, Jan. 18




It's HERE AND NOW. The Winter Olympic started in Sochi today with men's slopestyle snowboarding making its debut, but qualifying runs overshadowed by the absence of American Shaun White, who had said the course was dangerous and he wanted to focus on the halfpipe. Now, a warning. We're going to say who the top qualifier today. If you don't want to know, turn your radio down for 10 seconds. OK, Canadian Max Parrot had the best score today and leads a pack of eight qualifiers into the finals.

All right, let's now turn to a skier who's making a remarkable comeback just by being at the Olympics. Angeli VanLaanen of Bellingham, Washington overcame Lyme disease and a three-year hiatus for treatment to win right to ski the halfpipe. Lyme disease is an unusual diagnosis in the Pacific Northwest, which may be why her tiring symptoms went misdiagnosed for more than a decade.

From the HERE AND NOW Contributors Network, Tom Banse has her story.

TOM BANSE: Angeli VanLaanen beams and waves as a master of ceremonies pumps up the crowd in Park City, Utah. She and her American teammates are the picture of good health.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Let's send them off to Sochi in style. One more time I ask you to make some noise for the first-ever U.S. Olympic Free Ski Team.

BANSE: Moment earlier, the final Olympic trial event wrapped up. The 28-year-old Bellingham, Washington native secured a spot in the Sochi games with a clutch performance in her last chance to qualify. Ski halfpipe is a judged event, in which the skier strings together a daring routine of high-flying tricks, spins and grabs.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The power, hangs on, puts it together, oh yeah. Now, that is a pipe run, Angeli VanLaanen...

BANSE: VanLaanen only returned to competitive skiing at the beginning of last season. In Sochi, she'll celebrate a recovery milestone.

ANGELI VANLAANEN: February 10 will be the two-year anniversary of being diagnosed in remission. So it's very exciting to hit that mark. I feel very confident in my health.

BANSE: VanLaanen battled Lyme disease throughout her teenage years to her mid-20s. Today she can trace the infection to a tick that bit her in Wisconsin at the age of 10. But it took a very long time to figure out what was wrong.

VANLAANEN: I stumped doctors, and because my symptoms fluctuated so much over the years, I was not correctly diagnosed for 14 years.

BANSE: VanLaanen suspects that lack of education and awareness of Lyme disease led to her misdiagnosis for so many years. So last year she co-produced a documentary about her illness. In it, her family and fellow freeskiers like Jen Hudak recall their puzzlement with VanLaanen's bouts of fatigue, lack of balance and emotional swings.

JEN HUDAK: I remember seeing her sometimes in the air, and I'm like, it just looks like she doesn't know where she is. She's falling out of the sky. And well, that was the case. Like, you know, vertigo would set in in the middle of a run, and she would just literally fall out of the sky.

BANSE: Lyme disease is far more prevalent in the Upper Midwest and Northeast than here. Oregon and Washington State average around a dozen confirmed cases per year, although Lyme activists claim many more cases go unreported. Washington State Department of Health epidemiologist Marcia Goldoft says a distinctive bull's-eye rash is a telltale sign you were bitten by an infected tick. But not all patients get it or notice it.

MARCIA GOLDOFT: And after that the symptoms are fatigue, headache, fever, muscle and joint aches. It can sound like flu. It can sound like dozens and dozens of conditions and can be very hard to detect.

BANSE: Freeskier Angeli VanLaanen says the sooner you can catch the bacterial disease, the easier it is to treat. She says she's extremely excited to arrive on the world's biggest stage to talk about these things she cares about.

VANLAANEN: I'm really grateful to have the chance to share my story on a platform like the Olympics because I can reach so many more people and spread the word about Lyme awareness and touch more lives.

BANSE: The half-hour online documentary in which VanLaanen starred is called "Lymelight," that's L-Y-M-E-light. The film's director says daily Web hits have increased by the hundreds since the Mount Baker ski area phenom made the Olympic team. VanLaanen's return to peak form conveniently coincides with the debut of her event, ski halfpipe, in the Winter Games. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Tom Banse reporting. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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