A proud member of Team USA, Angeli VanLaanen will be competing in Sochi at the 2014 Winter Games. To stay up on the latest from Angeli and the other Dew Tour athletes, keep it locked on NBCOlympics.com.
With a win at the World Cup Superpipe in Park City, Utah, and finals appearances at both Dew Tour and X Games, Angeli's 2009 season was shaping up to be one for the books. However, before she could see it through, news from her doctor drew the curtain on her promising freeski career – she had advanced, untreated Lyme disease.
VanLaanen competing at Dew Tour 2012, her first Dew Tour appearance since 2009; she placed 7th.
In VanLaanen's words, "Lyme disease is caused by a bacteria attacking your body." It is a tick-borne illness with effects ranging from flu-like symptoms and vertigo, to joint pain and neurological problems.
When VanLaanen was ten years old, a tick bit her. "I didn't know to tell my mom that I had been bitten by a tick," says VanLaanen. "I didn't know that was a serious thing. When I went to the doctors, it was never brought up."
Had she mentioned the bite, she would have received appropriate and timely medical treatment, squashing the disease and with it any negative effect it might have had on her body. But that's not what happened; and for 14 years the bacteria silently waged war on her body.
VanLaanen looking solid in the pipe with a mute grab
VanLaanen battled the Lyme flare-ups the best she could, and while progressing her skills on her skis during the disease's dormant stages. A Bellingham, Washington native, she developed her solid ski foundation trailing her brother through the rich Big Mountain terrain at Mt. Baker. Her interest in park skiing didn't begin until high school when she attended a ski camp in Whistler, B.C., Canada.
"Being inspired by that experience, I decided that when I graduated high school I would move straight to Colorado to pursue my love of halfpipe skiing and park skiing. That's where I honed my skills."
A natural in the pipe, VanLaanen began competing and quickly ascended to the pro ranks. During that time, she tried to balance her performance on the mountain with the unexplained and unpredictable flare-ups. In 2008, when the symptoms were at their worst, VanLaanen had an especially devastating flare-up during the X Games. With an outstanding week of practice leading into the competition, VanLaanen secured herself as the favorite to win. On competition day, at the peak of one of her jumps, she suffered a spell of vertigo that derailed her performance, caused her to crash in the icy pipe and ruin her chance to place.
"That was a real tough bump in the road because there was no explanation," VanLaanen explains. "The experience made me question my mental strength as an athlete."
But in 2009, VanLaanen tested positive for Lyme – the explanation had come. At the recommendation of her doctors, VanLaanen stopped competing in halfpipe during treatment. After three years of vigorous treatment—which she chronicles in her self-produced documentary, Lymelight (embedded below)—she was diagnosed in remission in November 2012. She had her health back.
While the timing of her diagnosis couldn't have been any more devastating, her comeback couldn't have been timed any better.
VanLaanen is coming off a big second place finish in New Zealand earlier this season at the World Cup New Zealand Games. "It all came together for me in New Zealand," she exclaims with pride. "It was a huge moment for me. All the work I put in, it solidified that I had made it."
Diagnosed in remission, VanLaanen throws a flare-up free blunt grab
With the inclusion of freeski halfpipe in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, VanLaanen picked the right season to get hot. Headed to the first Olympic selection event of the season at Dew Tour's iON Mountain Championships in Breckenridge, Colorado, VanLaanen is ready to prove that she has what it takes to make the United States Freeski Team. "Everyone is feeling that extra motivation to do their best this year because of the Olympics coming up," VanLaanen says. "Having the Dew Tour be a qualifying event for us girls from the U.S., it's going to be a really exciting and progressive year."
Competitors take heed, and Sochi get ready, Angeli VanLaanen is coming for you.