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Bellingham Skier Overcomes Strength-Sapping Disease To Make Olympic Team

Flip McCririck
ESPN Images
Angeli VanLaanen practices in the superpipe during last week's Winter X Games competition in Aspen, Colo.

Nomination to the U.S. Olympic Team completes a remarkable comeback for a pro skier from Bellingham, Wash.

Angeli VanLaanen overcame Lyme disease and a three-year hiatus for treatment to punch her ticket to Sochi in ski halfpipe. Lyme disease is quite uncommon in the Northwest, according to area health departments.

That may be why VanLaanen's strength-sapping symptoms went misdiagnosed for more than a decade. VanLaanen only returned to competitive skiing at the beginning of last season. In Sochi, she'll celebrate a recovery milestone.

The 28-years-old Bellingham native secured a spot in the Sochi Games with a clutch performance in her last chance to qualify.

Now sporting a brand new Team USA parka, VanLaanen beams as she and her teammates present the picture of good health.

"February 10th will be the two year anniversary of being diagnosed in remission," says VanLaanen. "It's very exciting to hit that mark. I feel very confident in my health."

Just a few days afterwards, VanLaanen drops into the Olympic halfpipe with what she hopes will be a medal-winning routine of high-flying tricks, spins and grabs.

14 years of misdiagnosis 

VanLaanen battled Lyme disease throughout her teenage years and into her mid-20s. Today, she can trace the infection to a tick that bit her in Wisconsin at the age of 10. But it took a very long time to figure out what was wrong.

"I stumped doctors," recalls VanLaanen. "Because my symptoms fluctuated so much over the years, I was not correctly diagnosed for 14 years."

VanLaanen suspects that lack of education and awareness of Lyme disease led to her misdiagnosis for so many years. So last year, she co-produced a documentary about her illness. In it, her family -- and fellow freeskiers like Jen Hudak -- recall their puzzlement with VanLaanen's bouts of fatigue, lack of balance and emotional swings.

"I remember seeing her sometimes in the air," says Hudak in the documentary. "I'm like, 'It just looks like she doesn't know where she is. She's falling out of the sky.' Well, that was the case. Vertigo would set in in the middle of a run and she would just literally fall out of the sky."

Rare in the Northwest

Lyme disease is far more prevalent in the upper Midwest and Northeast than here. Idaho reports a handful of confirmed cases annually. Oregon and Washington average around a dozen confirmed cases per year. It should be noted that researchers from the Centers for Disease Control believe the true number of illnesses is probably higher because of underreporting.

Washington State Department of Health epidemiologist Marcia Goldoft says a distinctive "bull's eye" rash is a telltale sign you were bitten by an infected tick. But not all patients get it or notice it.

"After that the symptoms are fatigue, headache, fever, muscle and joint aches," explains Goldoft. "It can sound like flu. It can sound like dozens and dozens of conditions and can be very hard to detect."

Goldoft says most cases confirmed among Pacific Northwest residents were acquired elsewhere. She says about one person in a million gets Lyme disease from our native Western ticks. They're scattered out there in a variety of different habitats where deer and mice are present.

"There are some hotspots that are recognized locally," says Goldoft. "Check yourself after hiking. Remove the ticks. Check particularly in places where the fabric may rub - at the waistband or at the knees. Ticks may be there. Also, check your pet."

In the "Lymelight"

Freeskier Angeli VanLaanen says the sooner you can catch the bacterial disease, the easier it is to treat. She says she's "extremely excited" to arrive on the world's biggest stage to talk about things she cares about.

"I'm really grateful to have the chance to share my story on a platform like the Olympics because I can reach so many more people and spread the word about Lyme awareness and touch more lives," VanLaanen says.

The half-hour online documentary in which VanLaanen starred is called "Lymelight." The film's director, John Roderick, says daily web hits have increased by the hundreds since the Mount Baker Ski Area phenom made the Olympic team.

VanLaanen's return to peak form conveniently coincides with the debut of her event, ski halfpipe, in the Winter Games.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.