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Halfpipe skier on road back from Lyme disease

Angeli VanLaanen flies above the lip of the halfpipe during the World Cup U.S. Grand Prix freestyle skiing finals, Friday, Dec. 20, 2013, in Frisco, Colo. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Angeli VanLaanen flies above the lip of the halfpipe during the World Cup U.S. Grand Prix freestyle skiing finals, Friday, Dec. 20, 2013, in Frisco, Colo. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Sometimes, in the middle of a halfpipe run, skier Angeli VanLaanen would become so dizzy and disoriented that she couldn’t even figure out where to land.

“Scary,” she said.

Scarier still was that doctors had no clue why she would suddenly experience blurred vision. Or why she was constantly so tired. Or had frequent headaches.

They tested her for routine illnesses. Nothing.

And then for things like a brain tumor and multiple sclerosis – “the really scary stuff,” she said.

Turns out, she had Lyme disease, a bacterial infection transmitted by a tick. The 28-year-old was bitten as a kid and the disease went undetected for 14 years.

Now, after going through an arduous treatment program that kept her away from competing for three years, VanLaanen is back to her hard-charging ways. She’s chasing after a spot on the U.S. Olympic team in ski halfpipe, an event making its debut at the Sochi Games.

She even made a film about living with the disease entitled LymeLight (vimeo.com/65479794). In one of the more poignant scenes in the 30-minute film, VanLaanen talks about her lifelong struggle to find out what was wrong with her, saying: “I feel like me again. This is Angi. I like to be productive. I like to do things. I don’t want to be in a bed, sleeping all day, days in a row, not out there doing my life’s dreams.”

She then wiped away the tears before smiling.

“It was a long road to recovery emotionally,” she said, “and I went through a roller coaster of all the unknowns.”

VanLaanen believes she knows about the time when she was bitten: She was 10 years old and spending time in Wisconsin when she came in from the woods one day covered in ticks. Her mom and aunt extracted the creatures as best they could.

“Who knows how many were on me that summer,” she said.

Her symptoms began as dizziness and a chronic sinus infection. She also had severe headaches, muscle spasms, back and neck pain, and digestive difficulty. Even more, she was constantly tired. So much so that after a ride up the chairlift she had to rest.

No one could figure out why. Some doctors even suggested it was all in her head.

“That was quite traumatic and very hard for me,” said VanLaanen, who grew up in Bellingham, Wash., skiing on the slopes at Mt. Baker. “When I graduated from high school, I decided to just live my life and deal with these symptoms. For the most part, I would hide them from people, because I was looking to move forward.”

Her career was flourishing, too, shooting scenes for ski movies and competing at events such as the Winter X Games. All the while, she physically felt horrible.

“My pain tolerance just went up,” she said. “But the neurological symptoms, the vertigo, just having no balance, that’s scary.

“I was trying to keep going since there wasn’t an answer. Everyone thought mentally I couldn’t handle the pressure or that I was lazy because I was tired all the time.”

Finally, in 2009, her aunt – after seeing a documentary on Lyme disease – encouraged her to check to see if that was a possibility.

Bingo.

In November of that year, she went through extensive treatment to fight the disease.

“Your symptoms get worse until they get better,” she said. “But I really did attack Lyme disease like a new trick in skiing. I had that same mentality.”

It was far from an easy road back, though, taking about 2½ years before she was free of her symptoms.

“I went through dark times the first year, angry about being sick,” she said. “I was like, ‘What if I hadn’t been bit by a tick? What would I have been able to achieve?’

“Once I accepted my reality, that these are my cards, I found some positive solutions.”

Like making a film to spread awareness of her disease.

“My goal was always to get back to skiing,” she said. “At times, I wasn’t sure if it was possible. It wasn’t a for sure thing that I’d be able to return.

“But everything is going great.”

Look it up

Wonder in which events Bonnie Blair won her five gold medals? Look it up.

How about the last U.S. pairs to win an Olympic medal in figure skating? Look it up.

Where?

In The Complete Book of the United States Winter Olympics, a real find for stats buffs as the Sochi Games approach.

Dr. James Constandt, a longtime volunteer worker for the U.S. Olympic Committee and a familiar figure with the Michigan State sports information and event management departments, has compiled the book. He calls it a “fun read,” and it certainly is a quick way to get information on Americans’ performances at every Winter Olympics dating back to the inaugural event in 1924.

Constandt has broken down the book into chapters that list all U.S. medal winners by sport and by family relationships in a unique approach. He also includes a trivia section in which readers can discover which 1956 Olympic hockey player became governor of Minnesota and then a senator (Wendell Anderson). Or which skeleton athlete also broke the NCAA women’s high jump record (Noelle Pikus-Pace).

The book is published by Belleville Pointe Press.

Ageless wonder

Don’t count out the chances of Norway’s Ole Einar Bjoerndalen’s matching an Olympic record in Sochi, even as the biathlon great approaches 40.

Bjoerndalen is one of the most successful Winter Olympians ever with six gold medals, including a sweep of all four events in Salt Lake City in 2002. But he hasn’t won a World Cup event in nearly two years.

However, he showed recently that he’s getting back to his top form, finishing second behind countryman Emil Hegle Svendsen in two straight races in Oberhof, Germany. In the first, a 10-kilometer sprint, he missed out on the win by just 0.4 seconds. In the following pursuit, he led by about 20 seconds heading into the final shooting station but uncharacteristically missed two targets.

Bjoerndalen turns 40 this month, but if he keeps up that form, he has a realistic chance of matching Norwegian cross-country skier Bjoern Daehlie’s record of eight Winter Olympic gold medals.

Norway is the favorite in the men’s relay, meaning Bjoerndalen might just need one individual victory to get there.

“I am on the right track for Sochi,” said Bjoerndalen, who will be competing in his sixth Olympics. “This is my last Olympics, so I will prepare perfectly for that.”

Olympic rings

∎ 2002 Olympic gold medalist Kelly Clark, of West Dover, Vt., has already secured a spot on the U.S. snowboard team.

∎ Downhill skier Alice McKennis, of Glenwood Springs, Colo., shattered her right tibial plateau into 30 pieces during a crash in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, last season. And while she was on the comeback trail in hopes of making the Olympic team, McKennis decided this week not to push it too hard. “She made a very mature and smart decision to get strong and come back when she’s physically in a position to be competitive,” U.S. speed coach Chip White said. “She’s a true competitor and that’s who we want on this team. She’s now looking at future Olympic and world championship medals and future World Cup podiums.”

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