Every adventurer and athlete has to deal with setbacks due to injury or illness. Whether it’s a head cold during a summit bid or an ankle sprain that sidelines you for weeks, it’s frustrating and difficult. Freestyle skier and Olympic hopeful Angeli VanLaanen knows this all too well. She endured years of living with an undiagnosed case of Lyme disease while working her way up through the professional freestyle skiing circuit.
Angeli grew up in Connecticut (home to the town of Lyme, from which Lyme disease gets its name). When she was an adolescent, her family moved to Bellingham. She enrolled in a Waldorf school, where she excelled. Her family spent every snowy weekend at Mount Baker, where Angeli quickly became a phenom. Brash and independent, she took to the slopes like a fish to water.
While sharpening her skills and competing professionally, she was constantly battling body aches, dizziness and fatigue. After years of fruitless medical inquiries, she was eventually diagnosed with Lyme disease in 2009. It was far too late to treat it as an early infection, so she embarked on a long-term set of medical treatments for her chronic symptoms.
Her tenacity saw her through. Despite the anchor of Lyme disease, she continued to train, compete – and win – in Slopestyle and Halfpipe championships in New Zealand, the US, Canada and Norway. She is now regarded as among the best female freeskiers in the world. She’s been on the cover of Ski magazine and competed in ESPN’s X Games.
I asked her about her preference for the wild world of freestyle: “When I was growing up, I’d ski with my older brother. He began to do jumps off of cliffs and build ski jumps with his friends. When I first experienced being in the air and landing on my skis and continuing to ski down the slope, it changed my life! I knew THAT was what I wanted to do.
“I was a figure skater growing up, and I’d do jumps. I was a ballerina as well, and you’re always leaping in the air. So I think I was always looking for that. With skiing, it’s the next level. You really are in the air, for several seconds. And there’s the creativity I get to put into it. Each trick you do, someone else might do it, but it’s not going to look the same. There’s less uniformity than other sports; it’s more free. It’s open to your interpretation of how you want to do it.”
Her interpretations have led her from the sleepy slopes of Mount Baker to Olympic trials for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Though she recently moved to Salt Lake City, her formative skiing years were spent here in Bellingham.
“Mount Baker is still my favorite mountain in the world. It’s such a natural terrain mountain, they don’t groom a ton of it. The way the environment is in the Pacific Northwest, we have these amazing natural features. You can really get creative with the way you ski down a mountain. And we get the most snow! It’s a little heavier than the snow in Utah – it’s lighter, which is nice – but on Baker you can do a pillow line or you can jump off a cliff and you’ve got a cushion underneath you. There’s benefits and downsides to each type, but because I grew up skiing in the Pacific Northwest, it’s my favorite. I can’t sing Mount Baker’s praises enough.”
Those days of catching air at Baker have led her all the way to the US Olympic trials. She’ll be competing in five trial events throughout the winter in both Utah and California. At the end of the five events, they’ll announce who made the team. We’ll be rooting for her.
Her success in the snow is exciting, but Angeli reserves a lot of passion for her sponsorship of the LymeLight Foundation. Knowing all too well the trials and tribulations of both undiagnosed Lyme disease and the long hard road of treatment, she wants to spread the word that these strange symptoms have a cause and that help is available. She’s grateful to have come out the other side of this disease and she’s concerned about the thousands of others who remain undiagnosed.
She created a Kickstarter account to finance a documentary film about her battle with Lyme disease. Her Kickstarter attracted the attention of the LymeLight Foundation, for whom she is now a spokesperson and vocal champion.
Angeli VanLaanen is sponsored by Atomic, Oakley and the LymeLight Foundation. Check out her Lymelight Video.
UPDATE: On January 18, 2014, Angeli VanLaanen won the fifth qualifier at Park City, Utah. Along with her previous successes on earlier qualifiers, she scored enough points to join the US Ski Team at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. She will be competing for medals in the Women’s Halfpipe on February 20. The staff here at Adventures NW are thrilled about her success and we wish her all the best.
FURTHER UPDATE: On February 20, 2014 Angeli VanLaanen placed fifth in the qualifying round at the Women’s Ski Halfpipe at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Her qualification run was brilliant; she wowed the crowds and the judges as she moved onto the final event, competing for medals with the best in the world.
Unfortunately, during her first run, she had a rough landing after a big 540 move. The crash bloodied her nose and stunned her enough to end the run prematurely. But a smile broke through the tears and she decided to move forward and do her second run. Alas, she was clearly not 100% and her second run ended with her skis catching the edge on her fourth trick, sending her once again to the bottom of the pipe.
Angeli’s tough break didn’t douse her enthusiasm. She cheered on teammate Maddie Bowman, who took home gold for the USA. Watching on TV, the home town crowd was astonished yet still very proud of their home town girl. Interviewed right after her event final, Angeli was upbeat.
“There’s a lot of emotion tonight with this being the first event for halfpipe in the Olympics. I’m just remembering everyone who made this happen, bringing our sport to this place. So, it’s been an emotional night – even before the scrape on my face! But I definitely have a smile on my face, being a part of history in the making.”
Like everything else in life, it isn’t about winning the gold. It’s about going for the gold. We wish Angeli all the best and we’ll keep watching as she heads back into the snow. I am certainly inspired by her spirit and determination. GO, ANGELI, GO!