For nearly 20 years, snowboarding has been an Olympic Sport, an inclusion that ushered in a new winter athlete, one mixing the casual demeanor of a young lifestyle sport with pure competitive ferocity. The tenacity to win at the highest level is rare in most. It’s almost singular in its approach. Those that are able to harness it often achieve greatness.
Every so often, the path to greatness is interrupted, sometimes for long periods of time, and sometimes, like a great door slamming shut, it happens abruptly. For Olympic and X-Games athlete Spencer O’Brien, her abrupt interruption came via a life-changing diagnosis of Rheumatoid Arthritis at the young age of 25. The five-time X-Games medalist from Canada was set to make her Olympic debut at the 2014 Sochi games.
Rheumatoid Arthritis is an autoimmune disease that has a severe impact on the joints and can affect other parts of the body as well due to severe swelling. For a professional athlete a diagnosis like this can be physically and emotionally devastating. For O’Brien it was finally an answer to why her body was failing her. She experienced low points, but like a great athlete she persevered, rebuilt herself and triumphed against the odds. In 2016, two years after being diagnosed O’Brien won gold at Winter X. In 2017, she’s a favorite to qualify for the 2018 Olympics. We caught up with her to talk about the diagnosis, the Olympics, and what the future holds for one of the bravest competitors of all time.
So is Olympic qualification finished?
We’ve been qualifying for the last year, the World Cup in New Zealand was the first event that went towards qualification. Each country gets four quota spots, which can be allocated to the riders however each country chooses. I haven’t qualified yet but it’s different for the women because we don’t have the depth that the men do. It’s pretty much once I open up my quota spot I should be good to go. For now I’m going to do a few more events to solidify it, but I’m sitting in the top 30, and that’s really all I need to qualify.
Snowboarding continues to be a main draw for the Games, but we’re seeing a downturn in participation and sales industry-wide. Why do you think that is?
Whether or not the Olympics is a good thing for the sport is a conversation that has been taking place for a long time in snowboarding. It’s such an interesting dynamic: after men’s gold medal hockey, men’s snowboard halfpipe is the most watched event. So it’s interesting to think that our industry has really been suffering in both participation and sales. You’re also seeing a lot of top-tier riders without any industry support at all. To be honest, I think the Olympics are a really great thing for the athletes. It’s a great experience for us to be able to represent our country and it’s good for getting new eyes on the sport. But, I personally haven’t seen that have a positive effect on sales or be a factor in getting more people in.
Does being an Olympic Athlete still have the prestige that it once did?
Yeah I think so. I think it’s a really personal thing. When I was growing up I wanted to go to the Olympics for halfpipe, but when I started riding slopestyle I realized I liked it a lot more than riding pipe, and I wasn’t going to keep riding pipe just because it was an Olympic discipline. My goals were just to snowboard and do what makes me happy, which is slopestyle. One of my biggest goals was to go to the X-Games and win there. Of course winning an Olympic medal is right up there, but I guess it’s just a different thing. I’d like to win an Olympic gold medal more for my country and team than for myself, and I think that aspect of it is really cool for a snowboarder because snowboarding is such an individual sport. When I’m at X-Games or any other major event I’m there for myself, and there is a unique sense of pride when you’re competing for your country on that kind of stage.
Tell us about being diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis. What was going on that lead you to believe something was wrong?
I started to feel symptoms right before the Olympic qualification year, which would have been the end of 2012. Coming into the 2013 season I just started noticing simple things like being really stiff in my knees while warming up to trian. It was just taking a long time to warm up because my joints were stiff. It was the same thing with riding. I’d be setting up to go ride in the morning and just feel stiff and sore. I had just turned 25 and initially attributed it to being a little older and participating in a high impact sport for a long time. At first I didn’t really think too much of it through that season. Then I started to get a lot of joint injuries, which we didn’t associate with arthritis, we treated it like any injury: address it and try to push through. That season I ended up being riddled with injuries. It got to the point where I couldn’t lift my arms above my shoulders, which made it really hard to spin.
I just wanted to push through and qualify and make it to the offseason so I could rehab and be ready for Sochi. I made it through the season but then it kept being one step forward and one step back. I started getting really stressed out and dealt with a couple of bouts of depression during that period, and emotional stress makes arthritis even worse. By the time I got diagnosed it had gotten to the point where it was difficult to lift my head off of the pillow and I couldn’t walk down a set of stairs without my hand on the wall, which was a really scary feeling.
Was there a point when you thought your career was over?
Well, of course, I had doubts because before the diagnoses I didn’t know what was wrong with me, and I think that was the scariest thing. A big lesson I learned during that experience was to be an advocate for my health. I think our intuition is so strong, like I knew something was wrong with me beyond the injuries, and I did voice that, but we ran a number of tests, which came back clean. The doctors were telling me that I had put my body through a lot and that I just had to keep working hard to get back and I contested that for about three months and sat in pain for about three months with no progress. I had a follow up with my hand surgeon who is also a close friend of mine and he was the one that was like, “there is something else going on.” After that they retested me and then they found it.
Did having a diagnosis give you some relief?
Yeah it was hard to accept it at first and to just take it all in. At the same time it was really comforting to have a diagnoses so I could know what I was dealing with and then be able to put timelines on it and figure how to treat it.
Were both you and your doctors hopeful that you would be able to continue being a professional snowboarder?
Yeah, with the arthritis it can get more severe and it can also go into remission. Once you’re diagnosed they can treat it with medication. It took me about a year and a half to find the right medication. It’s been two and half years now and it’s been great. I don’t have any symptoms and I feel my age. So yeah, my doctors assured me that they would get me on some medication that would get me back to feeling good again. I feel pretty lucky that I found something that covers all of my symptoms, because there are people out there who have it more severe.
Switching gears, there was a lot of controversy around Sochi in regards to the conditions and the overall safety of the course. Any concerns for the upcoming Games? Have the athlete’s been involved in the course design?
No, that is the one bummer about the Olympics: the riders don’t have a lot of say. We just had a World Cup in New Zealand and they don’t do riders’ meetings. The riders are welcome to go, but they are called team captain meetings, so all of the coaches go and get all of the details for the next day like heats and start times. Where at the X-Games we have riders’ meetings every day. All of the riders come and we get to give input.
They had a team captain’s meeting in New Zealand and did a whole slideshow and revealed the plan for the Olympic park and no riders were there. Wouldn’t you want to tell us so we could see the park we are going to be riding in Pyeongchang? That was almost a month ago and I still haven’t seen the course. They did hire a good crew this time though, so I think they learned from Sochi and from what I heard from the test event, it was a great course.
Obviously there are some issues going in that region right now. Does that give you any reservations about going to South Korea to compete?
Yeah, I’m definitely a little more nervous for these Olympics than I was for Sochi. There was a lot of media attention around the safety of Sochi and I felt totally safe there. With everything that is going on in Korea and in the States right now, it’s definitely a little scary. I think it’s just a scary time in the world right now in regards to the political climate. I’m hoping they resolve whatever is going on before the games because my granny and my mom are coming and I don’t want to be worried about them. The Olympics are supposed to be about uniting the world and it brings pride to the country that hosts them. It would be heartbreaking if someone chose to do something really awful during that time.
If you had to give a piece of advice to anyone that is going through a debilitating injury or condition, what would you tell them?
Be an advocate for your own health. I think with Western medicine we are really trained to accept that a doctor’s word is the end all, be all. I have a lot of trust for my physicians and the people who treat me, but I think it’s important to trust your gut and explore other options if necessary. I have had a lot of people reach out to me and tell me my story helped them find their way back to the things they love doing, which is really a cool thing to hear. I think that’s the most important thing, fighting for your health and fighting for the life you want to have.