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My Journey as an Athlete Living With AS

I have been an athlete most of my life. I discovered the sport of tennis when I lived in France at the age of 7. The beginning of a beautiful journey! Very quickly I became so passionate about this sport. I trained a lot, became better and better, which led me to some highly competitive training centers and academies. My parents spent summers driving me from one tournament to another. It was busy and fun, and I loved it!

Fast forward to 11 years later, at the age of 18, I was on a plane to the U.S to play division 1 college tennis and get my undergraduate degree.

The peak phase

This was intense, rewarding, stressful, exciting, exhausting and joyful 4 years of my life. Tennis was a part-time job, training and playing more than 20 hours a week. Some days we had two training sessions per day, lifting, hitting or running. It was very demanding on the body, and even though I got stronger and felt resilient, I frequently got injured from over-training. My body seemed to be inflamed a lot.

In 2012, that’s when I started to experience lower back pain. We all thought it was from all the playing, however not much made it better and we tried a lot: treatment, physio, medication, rest, nerve ablations and the list goes on. I had accepted it as part of my life, and my mission was now to get through college while still playing as much as I possible could.

The diagnosis phase

Shortly after graduation, I started my first internship at a company. While I wasn’t playing tennis as much anymore, and my “career” was over so to say, I remained as active as I could. Running, lifting weights, biking etc. I was still in a lot of pain. I didn’t understand, I thought things would get better without all the intense hours training on the tennis court. That’s when I got referred to a rheumatologist who gave me the AS diagnosis. What a shock. What would this mean for the rest of my life? How could I remain active through this? It was mentally difficult. Did I have to give up my identity as an athlete?

Today 

Today, 9 years after diagnosis, I am still an everyday athlete. Being active and doing sports is a huge part of my life.

My view of what it means to be an athlete has changed. How so? Movement is medicine. I see it as a key pillar of my toolbox to avoid flares. However, I am much smarter about how I engage in doing sports. I no longer push myself like I used to, I don’t overtrain, and I take rest days.

“Move daily, gently and mindfully” is my current mantra. I can be an athlete without being too competitive and intense, two things my body no longer likes. I welcome a greater sense of joy, pleasure and self-kindness into this process. I get to play tennis and padel in a social setting. I lift to feel strong and support my spine, I practice yoga to fight the stiffness and I run to free my mind.

Being an athlete is thus still a big part of my identity. My AS diagnosis has taught me a lot, most importantly to listen to my body and my needs. I am grateful for all the learnings.

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