Athletes with Chronic Health Conditions
Living with a chronic condition can be difficult, without a doubt. Here are some world-class athletes who reached amazing heights in spite of, and sometimes maybe even because of, the challenges they've faced.
Rudolph overcame a number of serious childhood health problems, including polio, to become the “fastest woman in the world” in the 1960s. With hard work and physical therapy, she went on to compete in two Olympics—becoming the first American woman to win 3 gold medals in the same Games. She triumphed in spite health problems and the challenges of growing up in the segregated South and inspired an entire generation of young people.
Muhammad Ali is known for his unparalleled career in the boxing ring and staunch activism, and his courageous fight against Parkinson’s disease (which he lost in June 2016). Considered by many to be the the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time, he battled Parkinson's with grace and dignity for more than 30 years. Ali was one of the most significant sports figures of his time, winning gold in the 1960 Olympics and finishing with a 56-5 record.
Four U.S. Championships, 4 World Championships, and a gold medal in the 1984 Winter Olympics…Hamilton’s figure skating career is impressive, as is his ability to beat health problems. As a child, he had a rare disorder that reduces the absorption of nutrients and results in small stature. Later, he was diagnosed first with testicular cancer, then brain cancer. He founded the Scott Hamilton CARES Initiative which provides services for cancer patients.
Joyner-Kersee is the most decorated female track athlete in history, and a lifelong asthma sufferer. She competed in the heptathlon, winning a silver medal at the 1984 Olympics. In total, Joyner-Kersee earned 3 Olympic gold medals, one silver, and 2 bronze. After retiring, she helped establish Athletes for Hope, which encourages sports figures to “make a difference in the world,” and founded the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Youth Center for underprivileged kids.
Phil Mickelson has won 42 PGA events to date, including 5 majors. He was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis in 2010, a few years after developing signs of the chronic skin condition psoriasis. His disease causes joint damage and typically affects the wrists, knees, ankles, fingers, and toes—making the rigors of golf extremely difficult. With treatment, he has continued to be a factor on the pro tour and has been able to remain active with his family.
Tim Howard struggled in school and youth sports. As a middle-schooler, he was diagnosed with Tourette syndrome and OCD. Tourette’s is a lifelong tic disorder characterized by frequent tics—repetitive movements or sounds. Thankfully, he was able to find the focus he needed—in soccer. Today, Howard is the goalkeeper for the U.S. National team and the MLS Colorado Rapids. He attributes his success on the field in part to his neurological make-up.
Williams has helped change women’s tennis forever. Since 1994, she has taken the sport to new heights with her unmatched strength and athleticism, winning 7 Grand Slam titles to date. Diagnosed with Sjögren's syndrome, a chronic autoimmune disease that causes extreme fatigue and muscle pain, she has fought to compete o the court and off. Williams has her own clothing line and interior design company and works with UNESCO to promote gender equality.
Jay Cutler, quarterback for the Chicago Bears, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 2008. Since then, he has worked hard off the field to increase diabetes awareness and help children diagnosed with the disease. Cutler possesses a number of franchise records for the Bears, including most career passing touchdowns, most complete passes, and highest quarterback rating. His diabetes is well controlled with daily insulin.
Johnson was the youngest member of the U.S. canoeing and kayaking team at the 2004 Summer Olympics. A sprinter, Johnson qualified in 2 events, despite being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2003. She missed the 2003 and 2009 seasons because of her disease, but was the first canoer to qualify for both the 2008 and 2012 Games, reaching the semi-finals in 2012. Today, she continues to advocate for people living with Crohn’s.
Multiple sclerosis usually is diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50. Montgomery's diagnosis came at 15. Now, she is one of the fastest long-distance runners in the country. Montgomery has been featured on the Today Show and ESPN’s E:60 and in the New York Times. She trains 6 days a week and has overcome a seemingly devastating diagnosis—coming through it all faster than when she went in.