Kari Rowe

How Canadian snowboarder Spencer O’Brien continues to beat rheumatoid arthritis and the rest of the pro tour

Only three months before the 2014 Olympic Games, Canadian snowboarder Spencer O’Brien found herself crying in her doctor’s office, wondering if she’d have to give up her gold-medal dreams.

Her pain was the worst that it’s ever been.

Every morning she would wake up feeling swollen and heavy like a 25-year-old suffocating within a 90-year-old’s body. She feared walking down the flight of stairs to make breakfast because it hurt too much to put weight on her feet. Her shoulder joints were so inflamed she had trouble reaching for the dishes in the cupboard.

By the time she arrived at the local gym to work out, much of the pain would subside, but she still couldn’t push her body to the extent of her Olympic aspirations.

In the doctor’s office, she broke down:

“I know that there is something wrong inside,” she said. “I know in my heart that I’m sick.”

After two years of dealing with various aches, pains, injuries, ineffective medical treatments and inadequate surgeries, her doctor reasoned she probably had rheumatoid arthritis (RA), a disorder in which the immune system slowly destroys the body’s tissues. The swelling from the condition could cause bone erosion and joint deformity.

It’s a diagnosis that would cripple many athletes, but it wasn’t until that dark day that O’Brien really began to soar.

I'm in love with the coco. 🌨❄️ . . @chriswitwicki photo.

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Before her health tumbled downhill, the British Columbia native was a young girl who fell in love with snowboarding because she hated it.

O’Brien is of Haida/Kwakwakw’wakw (bands of Canada’s First Nations people) descent and she grew up in a skiing family from a small town called Alter Island. Her older sister snowboarded and at 11 years old, O’Brien started participating in those winter sports as well. She admits that she “sucked” in the beginning, but not enough to quit.

“I was super competitive,” she told Excelle Sports. “I like to be the best person in all sports. I was so bad at it but it was the first sport that I wanted to keep doing. It was so humbling and super challenging.”

The thrill of being outside and cutting through fresh powder also kept O’Brien in the sport. Out there alone on the cold slopes she had the liberty to create and express herself.

“[Snowboarding] is just so different than other sports,” she said. “You really have the freedom to do it any way that you like.”

By 2007, she debuted at the X Games, where she became known for excelling at the slopestyle event. In slopestyle, athletes show off their best tricks and jumping skills while speeding down a course of ramps and rails. O’Brien earned one bronze and one silver medal in her second and third appearances at the Games.

[More from Excelle Sports: Can anyone beat 16-year-old snowboarding prodigy Chloe Kim? The answer is maybe.]

But during the 2012-2013 season, the Olympic qualifying year for Sochi, her knees started to get stiff and painful. It would take her much longer to warm up for her runs. She soon developed bursitis in one of her shoulders among other joint injuries and couldn’t use her arms while she was competing. The muscles of her upper body slowly atrophied from disuse, but she was not going to let that stop her from qualifying for her first Olympic Games.

“I thought it was a byproduct of getting a little older in a very high impact sport,” said O’Brien. “[My team] had to craft this whole game plan to get treatments to get through the qualification year. It was pretty rough riding with so many injuries.”

Despite the aches and pains, O’Brien still managed to snag another slopestyle bronze at the 2013 X Games in Aspen and solidified her spot on Team Canada—she was just that good. A restful summer followed a blistering winter. O’Brien stepped away from the slopes and focused on rehab and weights to get as strong as possible. So she had surgery to correct the bursitis (successful) and started doing more dryland training and gym sessions than most pro snowboarders on tour.

But as O’Brien started to regain muscle, more mysterious injuries started to flare up. One day, a Baker’s cyst—or a sack of fluid—bulged behind her knee. A cyst is usually the sign of knee damage, but the MRI came back negative. Her toes began to swell and her shoulders were frequently inflamed. She tried cortisone shots and other treatments that only made the pain worse. O’Brien no longer knew what to do.

“I was depressed at that time,” she said. “To be in that state of limbo for so long was really hard on me. Every time I felt like I made a little bit of progress, something else happened. People definitely knew something was up with me, but no one knew what it was.”

That’s why on Nov. 25, 2013, the day the doctors diagnosed her with rheumatoid arthritis, O’Brien felt such a feeling of relief. After trying a bunch of medications, the doctors finally found a prescription that treated most of her symptoms but put her at a higher risk of infections and other illnesses. Once a month, she’d take a refrigerated shot in her thigh that weakened her immune system to the point that even a minor cut on her body could turn into a major concern. Still, she could go on living her normal, slope-shredding life pain-free.

“Once I was medicated it was like the whole world opened up and everything became possible again,” she said.

[More from Excelle Sports: WATCH: Hailey Langland, the first woman to pull off a Cab Double Cork 1080]

Possible meant winning another bronze medal at the 2014 X Games and making the final round of the slopestyle event in Sochi only after a few weeks of training. At the Olympics, O’Brien fell two out of her three final runs and walked away with a disappointing last place finish. Still, she could feel that her larger victory was coming.

“It was a miraculous feeling,” O’Brien said of returning to top form. “My love for the sport was totally renewed. I was really grateful to be able to do it still and it gave me a fresh perspective on competitions and why I do it. In 2014, I didn’t get the best results but for me, riding wise, it was the best year of my career. It definitely made me stronger. If all that didn’t happen I wouldn’t be the snowboarder that I am.”

Last year, in her 10th appearance in the X-Games, she finally reached the top of the slopestyle podium. RA or no RA, O’Brien’s snowboarding speaks for itself.

Up until this year, the now 29-year-old has largely kept her health struggles a secret because she didn’t want to be labeled as the “Snowboarder with RA.”

“That’s why I kept it close to my chest for a long time,” said O’Brien. “Also I was just dealing with it personally.”

But now that she has more of a grasp of her illness she hopes to inspire others who suffer from the disorder to be advocates of their own health. Since rheumatoid arthritis is so different for each person, there are those that struggle to find medicine that addresses all of their symptoms.

“You have to persevere a little bit to find out the solutions that work for you and once you find it, you can do anything,” said O’Brien. “It doesn’t have to debilitate your life, if you don’t let it.”

[More from Excelle Sports: WATCH: Silje Norendal wins Women’s Snowboard Big Air gold]

O’Brien’s solutions include her once-a-month shot and a plethora of mobility exercises to keep her joints limber. She also enjoys moderate Olympic weightlifting to maintain her strength and power for snowboarding.

She’s even thought about trying a holistic diet approach to get off of her prescribed drugs. That way, there’s a chance her condition could go into remission. But the life of a pro athlete makes that reality too difficult to realize.

“It’s something I haven’t really played with yet because of how much I travel,” she said. “It’s super hard to control everything that I eat like when I’m in a foreign country and I don’t have a kitchen. But it’s something that down the road I want to look into because I’m a young woman and I would prefer not to be on medication for the rest of my life.”

For now, O’Brien is gearing up for an Olympic qualifier in New Zealand this September and various training camps between Whistler, B.C. and Switzerland. To get the Olympic gold medal of her dreams, she knows that her greatest challenge is no longer about dealing with her body. It’s now about mastering her mind.

“I believe that the mental side holds athletes back more than any injury,” said O’Brien. “It’s just your own belief in yourself and your own ability to overcome. I hope that I can go to Pyeongchang and go with a clear mind and let my body do what I know it can do.”

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