Back in 2012, we spent hours glued to our TV screen as London hosted the Olympic and Paralympic games. We were lucky enough to be able to take the children to see some of the sports at both events and I reflected then on the need for EGID and food allergy heroes to help inspire G and M to be the very best they can be without letting their health issues get in the way of their dreams. Four years on and it’s the 2016 Olympics in the much more exotic, though sometimes equally wet, location of Rio and our family is just as absorbed in watching as much as we can, even with the added challenge of the time difference to negotiate. I have enjoyed seeing the children cheering their favourites on, but even more I have loved the emerging stories of some of those competitors which have really struck a resounding chord with me. We are not surprised by the tales of amazing fortitude that are revealed during the Paralympics, but these are individuals who have beaten the odds and are competing at the highest level against fellow athletes who do not have to battle against health challenges in the Olympics.
Our first inspirational athlete is British swimmer, Siobhan-Marie O’Connor, who won silver in the 200m individual medley at the Rio games. Not only did she win a silver medal, but she also broke the British record and all that whilst living with the effects of Ulcerative Colitis on her body. Siobhan-Marie was diagnosed with this inflammatory bowel disease following London 2012 and that diagnosis has resulted in the right medication and improved health helping her to succeed in her training and getting her to the Olympics this year. This has a particular resonance for me as UC is not dissimilar to M’s Eosinophilic Colitis as it causes inflammation to the colon, although with UC tiny ulcers develop on the lining of the rectum and the colon as well. To push her body beyond the pain and fatigue that I know will be plaguing her during flares in order to achieve excellence in her sport requires a determination and positivity that is truly remarkable.
Having read about Siobhan-Marie’s success whilst living with Ulcerative Colitis, I thought I had found a potential candidate for a role model for both M and G; and then I saw an article about the Italian fencer, Aldo Montano, who is living with a severe and potentially life-threatening dairy allergy. Aldo was diagnosed with this allergy as a baby and has learned to adapt to his environment and to make food choices that will keep him healthy and keep anaphylaxis at bay. His lifestyle as an athlete does not, perhaps, easily lend itself to living with an allergy, but Aldo is clear that he does not let this allergy define him “…It is easy to get scared. I understand the fear of not trusting anyone and not wanting to eat anywhere other than at home. But I have had to figure it out — because my life choice is to compete and I have to travel…” I don’t know that either child will ever aspire to be Olympic fencing champions, but if they can adopt Aldo’s attitude that “…my secret is the same as Superman’s: stay away from kryptonite. If I stay clear of dairy, I am super strong. My secret is to stay away from it, and be positive…” then I am certain they will see success in their chosen field.
These are not the only amazing stories of these games, but they are both inspirations to our family in particular and there are so many other athletes who have overcome struggles that make their achievement in reaching Rio all the more sweet too such as British gold-medal diver, Chris Mears, who has beaten unbelievable problems to become a British record-maker in 2016. There have also been those who have suffered shocking accidents in pursuit of their dreams whilst there and are already on the road to recovery and focusing on their next goal; Dutch cyclist Van Vluten comes to mind. As for what we’ve learned from Rio 2016, well really it’s simple: that focus, determination and a desire to succeed can beat physical injury and serious health problems every time, so don’t let your chronic illness define who you are or dictate what you can become.