The Weight Room
Working out in spite of a chronic disease can be both empowering and therapeutic. How do top athletes master this and what can we learn from it?
Intimidated by the gym?
As I was waiting in the guest area of our local gym, I couldn’t help but notice red-faced athletes with belts strapped around their hips mingling with sweaty fitness enthusiasts carrying rolled-up mats. There was no judgement, only friendly banter. Everyone was exchanging friendly looks, while a few conversations were bubbling up around the tall, white tables by the water fountain. A rhythmic clunk was coming from the exercise floor. I tried not to peer through the glass walls, but the clockwork movement of people setting up their barbells and lifting them was hypnotic.
I noticed a woman calculating the span of her lift with the tips of her fingers, as she tightened her grip on the barbell, ready to squat. If you’ve ever watched olympic lifting, you know that anxious feeling before the snatch, the electric whiz in the air. As she pushed through her heels, she drove the barbell upwards, with perfect balance. A tight hold was then followed by a swift release.
‘How can I help you?’
She must have been standing next to me for a while, before I noticed her, holding a black folder and meaning business. Her name tag said ‘Cintia’. ‘H..hi Cintia!’ Unexpectedly, I was feeling the jitters of a job interview. ‘I signed up for a session of personal training.’ She gave me a smile and invited me for a short assessment.
When I entered the gym for the first time, I realized there is more to life than treadmills and stationary bicycles! The ground floor had a training area, ten by ten meters, marked with padded floors and free weights. The kettlebells and the dumbbells, all stacked in a corner looked like a cast iron bonsai. There were monkey bars, trampolines and medicine balls of different shapes and sizes. The entire setup was overlooked by a giant, omniscient clock, Rocky Balboa-training-in-his-basement style.
‘I want to learn how to deadlift.’ Saying that out loud was bold. At that point I could barely walk a flight of stairs or carry my backpack without getting tired. Cintia looked at my assessment sheet and puckered her lips, nodding: ‘I’ll need to see where you are right now, in terms of strength, but…. I think you could do it.’
And that was all I needed to know!
The chronic illness
For three long weeks, my heart would start racing daily as if an invisible predator was lurking behind me in my living room. I was too alert to sleep or eat a full meal. I was not hyperactive by design, but by an unfortunate genetic chance. I had Graves’ disease.
Graves’ is an autoimmune disease in which the thyroid produces a higher quantity of hormones than normal. This affects almost every system in a person’s body. Metabolism and heart rate changes are usually the first signs of illness, often followed by heat intolerance, hand tremor and twitches, muscle atrophy and anxiety. The silver lining is that Graves’ is a manageable illness. There are several options, usually resulting in the patient taking artificial hormones for the rest of her life.
The faster the disease is found, the better the outcome. It took me a couple of weeks of constant 120 heart beats per minute to realize that something was off… I probably lost five kilograms in one month. I couldn’t eat too much at once and I couldn’t rest, or sleep, or be myself. Every day after work, I would crash on the couch and watch whatever was on TV.
Learning from top athletes
One evening I found a powerlifting competition on my video feed. It was the 2019 IPF World’s Championship and the lifter getting ready to walk under the barbell was Heather Connor. With her petit physique and lean composition, she looked a lot more like a gymnast than a powerlifter. The spotters, twice her size, gathered around her solemnly. She squeezed her hands around the barbell, lowering her hips, sinking her Converse shoes into the platform. She flipped her hair, held her breath and deadlifted a 176 kilograms load. She put the weight back on the ground with a heavy clunk and released a feisty scream, clapping her hands. And just like a magician being gulped by smoke in her final act, she disappeared in a cloud of magnesium powder.
Heather Connor is a pre-kindergarten teacher who holds the world record of deadlifting in her weight category, by having lifted four times her own body weight. In interviews she often mentions starting powerlifting out of a long lasting affinity for sports and the desire to cope with anxiety and depression. She was using her weightlifting as a tool to calm her mind and cast intoxicating thoughts away. Later in her career she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, an autoimmune illness of the digestive tract. Even though Connor took some time off to deal with her condition, she still wanted to make a return and decided to keep going on her athletic journey.
I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that someone with a chronic disease could still be a competitive athlete. One could recover from a broken bone or a shoulder impingement, but imagine dealing with an illness for life! Variables such as nutrition, accessory exercises and load have to be adjusted to match the person’s physiological blueprint. The training regime would also have to work around the fact that certain medications give side effects, and that fatigue levels are higher than for the average athlete. Fighting all these drawbacks with unflinching determination sounds like an impossible deed, don’t you think so? Let me introduce you to an athlete who cut the wind from the top of the mountain with his insulin pump tucked under his equipment, leaving sportscasters worldwide in awe: Kris Freeman!
Freeman is a retired cross-country skier who competed in four different Olympic games. He collected a remarkable amount of titles in thirteen years of championships, managing at the same time his type one diabetes. It takes at least two hours to complete a race in cross-country skiing. For an athlete with type one diabetes this means that somewhere on the way, he must readjust his sugar levels. In 2002, for his competition in Sweden, Freeman planned to take fifteen grams of sugar in the middle of the race. In order to do so and still have a chance to win, he had to make sure it only took a split second. The plan was to grab a bottle of sports drink from his coach who was waiting in a predefined spot on the sideline. As he was reaching out for his coach’s hand, skiing downhill, he knocked down the bottle held for him. Spilling the drink meant he had to continue the race with lowering sugar levels in his bloodstream. He managed to take his dose later on, from another member of his staff waiting for him on the course, but he had to ski lightheaded for a long stretch.
In his career, Freeman navigated impossible obstacles. Since there is no recorded information of a previous type one diabetic in an endurance sport, he had to find out the timing and quantities of his insulin dosage by himself. Discouraged by his doctors, he learnt how to adapt to his new lifestyle by trusting his instincts and refusing to bend his mindset. And just like in any other situation of being stuck in the midst of doubt, the beginning was the hardest. Freeman needed to find a medical team to support him and some sort of example to give him confidence — someone who walked the path and kept competing. He found it in Gary Hall, Jr., an olympian in swimming. Hall, Jr. was diagnosed with type one diabetes in 1999 and won four medals at the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000.
This gave Freeman hope to continue in his sport and learn as much as possible about his illness. He educated himself about physiology, stress management and dieting. If high stress levels might influence the ability of an athlete to perform at his best, for Freeman, it was a matter of being able to finish the race at all. At the beginning of a race, he had to set his insulin pump based on the altitude of the course and the weather conditions. In the Vancouver competition, he felt under so much pressure, that his insulin levels were unexpectedly high. Freeman then miscalculated his insulin intake and ended up collapsing on the track. The fall did not stop him from finishing the competition, though — he summoned all his remaining energy, got up and finished the race on the 45th place.
How did he do all that? How do you keep pushing when life itself coils around you and squeezes the vitality out? Freeman never considered quitting, not even when facing absurdity in his professional career. He had to receive permission from the U.S. and global Olympic committees to inject insulin in order to not be accused of doping. His main drive in his career, he says, was his love for the sport — all else came secondary.
It’s all about showing up
When I got sick, I felt very disappointed — not because of the illness itself, but because I didn’t notice how my mental stance was slipping away. Eventually, I started doing fitness hoping I can recenter myself in my own body.
If you suffer from a chronic illness, ask your GP which kind of physical activities would suit you best. Afterwards, try to set a goal: what is it that you would like to accomplish and how soon? Your first goal can be as simple as “I want to be less anxious in my daily life” or “I want to get rid of my back pain”. Gyms offer a variety of classes, where you can try new activities in a group setting, whether you are an experienced athlete, or a beginner. At the end of the day, it’s all about showing up and focusing on your body!
People like Kris Freeman and Heather Connor will always inspire me to be stronger and more disciplined, but also to allow myself time for healing and self care. Surrounding myself with people that nurture my dreams and understand my struggles helped me arrive at a place of patience and hope, where quitting is not an option; and no matter how badly life would ruffle my feathers, I will always look for a way to hold my head above the bar. In the weight room.