Words: Heather Hansman
By the time she passed out on a Russian chairlift in 2008, Angeli VanLaanen knew that something wasn't right with her body. She'd been fighting vertigo, debilitating joint pain, and exhaustion. Turns out, she had undiagnosed Lyme disease.
VanLaanen, who competed in Winter X Games and won the 2009 World Cup Superpipe, fought through the symptoms of Lyme the whole time she was skiing competitively. "I had a few falls in the pipe that were really scary," she says. "ESPN still runs one of them from X Games."
This fall, she's making a documentary, LymeLight, about her struggles with the disease. Lyme, a bacterial infection that's spread by ticks, has wide-ranging symptoms and affects people differently, which can make it complicated to diagnose.
VanLaanen spent almost 14 years undiagnosed. "I contracted Lyme, I suspect, at 10, that's when I started having symptoms, but I wasn't diagnosed until November of 2009," she says. Doctors misidentified her symptoms as everything from arthritis to depression. Her frustration that it took her that long to figure out she had Lyme is a major reason why she's creating the documentary.
She's spent the past two and a half years working towards getting healthy again. It's taken a mix of antibiotics, strict diet changes, and a lot of time. Part of the problem with late-stage Lyme diagnosis is that health insurance only covers treatment for three months. If it's caught early, it can be treated in six to eight weeks, but if it's diagnosed late, like in VanLaanen's case, it takes much longer to flush out. "What I have they call chronic Lyme, the bacteria has made a home in my body," she says. "There are a lot of people out there like me who know that they have it but they're trying to live with it, because their insurance won't cover it."
Now, she's off medication, free of her symptoms, and able to exercise after six months of being immobilized and hooked up to an IV. Last March she was cleared to ski again, and she says this summer she's focused on getting strong, so she can try to ski competitively again next year. "I have lots of mixed feelings about going back to competing," she says. "It's hard not to doubt your body once it's given up on you, but maybe I'll still love it as much as I did before and I'll go to the Olympics. The only plan I've made is to do one comp next year and see how that goes."
VanLannen and Neu Productions, who is producing the movie, are raising funds for the film on Kickstarter. She says they're hoping to have it finished to take on tour in the fall, and that they want to show it in schools, because kids are more likely to ignore tick bites and the symptoms of Lyme. "There's never been an athlete who has been in the spotlight about it," she says. "I feel like I have an opportunity to use action sports to reach out to a younger community."
May is Lyme Disease Awareness Month. You can watch the trailer for LymeLight and help fund the project here.