In the Olympics in spite of CFIDS

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This article is reprinted with permission from The CFIDS Chronicle Vol. 11 No. 2, Marh/April 1998.

After two years of fighting fatigue and training inconsistently, speedskater Amy Peterson joined a new team last summer and told herself she was starting over. With each mile on a bicycle on the roads around Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and with each turn around the ice rink at the Saratoga Winter Club, she went looking for the old Amy Peterson, the skater she had been when she won silver and bronze medals at the 1992 and 1994 Winter Olympics.

And before she got sick with chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction syndrome (CFIDS).

She worked against the fatigue, cutting back her training expectations and enduring the misunderstandings of teammates who were training harder than she could. She had only recently been diagnosed, and neither she nor her doctors knew much about it. On days when her illness took over and she felt all she could do was lie in bed, she refocused herself.

“I’d say, ‘What are you doing here? This isn’t getting you any better,” and she’d get up, go to the rink and put on her skates. She drew on the strength and determination that had made her the U.S. Short Track Champion four times and used it to fight her illness.

“The thing is, I had something once, and I lost it. Getting it back was the only thing that was important to me. Skating makes me who I am. If I had given that up when things were really bad, I would have lost my identity. That’s what gets me out of bed and to the rink. It’s what gets me through every day.

“This year wasn’t about me getting on the Olympic team again. It was about me skating the way I skated before. It was about finding Amy Peterson the speedskater again.”

And she did.

The 26-year-old, who grew up in Maplewood, Minn., led the U.S. Women’s Short Track Team into the 1998 Olympic competition, scheduled for Feb. 17, 19 and 21. Amy won all of her races in the U.S. trials at Lake Placid, N.Y. in January.

Her success resulted immediately in a brief story in USA Today (Jan. 19, 1998) that focused on her battle with CFIDS. Amy said she hoped her comeback and such press coverage would spread awareness and understanding of the illness, something she said had been hard for her to find.

She made the point in the USA Today interview that she’s no cured, only coping well. The trials were held over two weekends, and Amy said the week in between was extremely difficult.

As with many CFIDS patients, the worst part for Amy came before she knew what she had.

“It was almost two years before any doctor even came out and said, ‘I think you have chronic fatigue syndrome.’ They figured I was depressed and I was sent to a psychiatrist until he began to believe there was something physically wrong with me. You know, when you’re fatigued all the time, you’re going to be depressed. For me it was a relief to know this was something real. I knew what I was fighting.”

Amy became ill after the 1994-95 season with mononucleosis. “I though I had given myself time to recover, but the next season I would get colds that would last much too long, and my training wasn’t as consistent as it should be. By the end of the 1995-96 season, I was always tired. Some days I felt like I could still skate OK, but I couldn’t. My confidence went from like a 10 to a minus 5.”

During that time, she was training min Milwaukee under Andy Gabel, a good friend and the leader of the men’s team at this year’s Olympics. “I think last year was almost as hard for Andy because he didn’t know what to do for me. He couldn’t relate to what I was going through for a long time, but now he just about totally understands. The other day during the competition, he told me when he was feeling really exhausted he though to himself, ‘I wonder what Amy feels like.’ I’m not going around and telling everyone how I feel or what I have, because I’m not ever going to use it as an excuse for how I’m skating, but when Andy’s around and somebody says something, he knows how to answer them, and that’s really helpful.”

After finally being diagnosed, she was treated by a doctor in Minneapolis who worked primarily with athletes but had few patients with CFIDS. “He knew about the illness, but he basically said there was nothing that could be done for it. He put me on antibiotics for a month thinking that I might have some kind of undetectable infection.” Last summer, the National Team doctor did extensive strength and endurance tests and blood tests, but they found nothing conclusive.

“I did a lot of reading on my own and talked to a nutritionist. I read something from Michelle Akers (a PWC and member of the U.S. Olympic women’s soccer team) about all the things she doesn’t eat any more, and I though, wow, that’s a little far out for me. I eat a little healthier now, but there isn’t anything I won’t eat. I think I’ve found a happy medium. I’m just a little more conscious of it.

“I’m off all prescription medicines now, and that feels good. I take a very good multivitamin every day – I’m probably more religious about taking them ever day now – but that’s all.”

She helped herself by cutting back on activities other than skating, such as college courses and a part-time job. And she trained differently, learning to accept that she couldn’t train as hard as some of her teammates but that it was right for her.

“My present coach, Pat Maxwell, doesn’t totally understand yet, I think. But he watches me really well and he can tell by looking in my eyes how I’m doing. When I’m getting to my limit, I get dark circles under my eyes and I might be almost crying, and he can see that. He can keep me from training too hard. You know, I’m 16, and I’ve been skating all my life, so most people would think I should know my body and my limits, but I really don’t. Some coaches, if you’re having a bad day, will get down on you or just start to ignore you, but he’s never stopped believing I could get better.”

Amy hasn’t stopped believing in herself either.

“From what I’ve read, some people with chronic fatigue syndrome get better and some people just stay sick or get worse. I think I’ll get rid of it. I really believe that.”

She’s had a number of people with CFIDS question whether she really has this illness because she’s still able to train and race.

“I get that all the time. I just say I think there are different strengths of the illness and it affects people in different ways. Some people have told me they can’t get out of bed because of CFIDS, and there were days last year when I felt like that too. But I also believe that if you let it, it will drag you down. I don’t believe people should do what I do (train for the Olympics), but you should do what you can.”

Amy’s future on skates is uncertain, but she’s not ready to make any decisions about retiring until this season plays out.

“I’m still young for a skater, but I don’t know how I’ll feel. It’s been so hard getting back.”

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