B.C. snowboarder opens up about medical struggle
‘Frightening’ rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis left Olympic athlete feeling devastated, but now she’s telling her story to help others
Two-time Olympic snowboarder Spencer O’Brien was considered a top medal contender heading into her first Olympics in 2014.
About a year before the Sochi Games, at age 25, she suddenly found herself in chronic pain all over her body, barely able to walk down the stairs let alone snowboard competitively.
The two-time World Champion and 2016 X Games Gold medallist was then, just a few months before the Games, diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. RA is an autoimmune disease that causes fatigue, chronic pain, inflammation and loss of function of the joints, and the progressive destruction of the joints. It affects an estimated 300,000 people in Canada.
“It felt like my body was betraying me,” she said. “Snowboarding is my source of happiness so it was the most frightening thing to think I might not have that in my life anymore.”
She kept her diagnosis to herself, determined not to let it keep her from her Olympic dream.
Thanks to a combination of medications she was able to snowboard again, but then just before the Games the arthritis flared up again. Doctors put her on an aggressive treatment just to get her through the Games.
On Monday night, O’Brien, 30, and several other women, connected by rheumatoid arthritis, will take part in a panel called #RAMattersAtWork at the Westin Bayshore in Vancouver.
It is the first in a national series of events created by Eli Lilly Canada and Women in Biz Network. Registration for the inaugural panel and networking event is free.
“For me this forum is very powerful because when I was first diagnosed I chose not to speak publicly,” she said. “I was just trying to wrap my head around it and figure out what it meant for me and my future in the sport. Even after the Olympics I was hesitant to speak, but once I did it was such an empowering thing to know my story could help other people.”
There is still a lot of stigma associated with the disease and people don’t want to be defined by it, and they worry about the implications that it can have on their work life.
“It was heartbreaking to be so close to the Olympics and then back at square one,” she said. “Those were some really dark days.”
After the Sochi Olympics, she took seven months off to work with her doctors and find a method of treatment she could stay on and still be able to compete.
“The biggest thing for me was always ‘am I going to be able to snowboard?’ And I feel really lucky that I am still able to do that,” she said.
She hopes that by participating in the forum she can inspire people with RA to achieve their goals, whether they just want to go for a run again or do competitive sport.
O’Brien, who lives in North Vancouver, moved to Squamish from Courtenay when she was 16. She became a professional snowboarder while she was still a high school student.
At the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics earlier this year, O’Brien competed in slopestyle and the Olympic debut of big air.