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By Carrie Johnson
I'm a three-time Olympic athlete. I'm a veterinary student. And I'm living with Crohn's disease.
When it comes to Crohn's, I'm hardly alone: the condition affects approximately 700,000 Americans. Crohn's disease is a chronic disorder that causes inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract. There are no known cures, and painful flare-ups can happen at any time. Certain aspects of Crohn's can be embarrassing, but it's definitely nothing to be ashamed of. That's why I'm sharing my experiences during this year's Crohn's & Colitis Awareness Week—to show people that talking about the condition can often make things better.
I was in my first year of senior level sprint kayak training and a student at the University of California at San Diego when I found out that the gastrointestinal issues, fatigue and anemia I had been suffering from for months were caused by Crohn's disease. I had just competed in the World Championships Team Trials, and it was incredibly disappointing to have to decline my nomination for the team. But it was also a relief to finally have a diagnosis after so many grueling months of seeing doctor after doctor.
My first response was to research the disease, and after reading several books and looking online, I was scared by the worst-case outcomes and statistics presented. Would I become one of those statistics, and would I be able to continue to live the active and competitive lifestyle I loved?
It took some time, but I made the decision to continue to live my life and focus on the things I could control. This included training, school and working with a GI specialist to keep my Crohn's under as much control as possible. Anyone living with the disease knows that the most frustrating part of IBD (inflammatory bowel disease) is often the lack of control, but I have learned that through listening to my body, being honest with myself and working with a doctor I trust that I can put myself in the best position to stay healthy and catch flare-ups early.
I had to take some time off from training, but I stayed involved with my team. I slowly began training and found that the time off had given me a new appreciation for the opportunity to train, and I came back with extra motivation. The next year I achieved my long-held dream: I was named to the sprint kayak team for the 2004 Olympics!
Walking into the Olympic Stadium in Athens was exhilarating, and I returned home to continue school and training—with the 2008 Olympics already in my sights. I began to assume a "new normal" of life with Crohn's. By qualifying for the team in Athens, I was able to prove to myself that I could live with Crohn's, and gradually the aspects of living with the disease became part my daily routine.
It has hardly been a smooth road: Crohn's can be a frustrating condition. I have had long stretches of good health, as well as extended periods of flare-ups that have included hospitalization. But, I have always stayed true to the promise I made myself—I stay focused on the things I can control and continue to live my life. Staying true to that promise helped me see not just a second, but a third Olympic Games, and I had a great time competing in London this past summer.
Now, I'm settling down for another "new normal." This past fall, I began studying at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. I'm in remission—and hope I stay that way! I know there's nothing that Crohn's disease can stop me from accomplishing.
You can learn more about Crohn's disease at CrohnsandMe.com.