“I am definitely still learning how to pace myself and check my expectations. I push very hard, I expect myself to be the last one on the hill almost every day, but I have had to alter that. The thing with Crohn’s is you really can’t push yourself to that point because your body won’t let you. This is something I will continue to battle and as soon as I get some results I think I will feel relief. It will just be another thing I have overcome and mentally that would be really good because right now I don’t feel I have overcome anything.”
Para alpine skier Mollie Jepsen is used to overcoming physical challenges. It comes with the territory when you spend your time hurtling down mountains at speeds of up to 100km/hr, but nothing has quite prepared the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympics super combined standing champion for the latest obstacle fate has placed in her path: Crohn’s disease.
“I have had a rough few years with injuries and have felt I have always been able to overcome those in a pretty good manner,” said Jepsen, who since 2011 has broken her hand, twice torn the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her knee and broken her ankle. “But in this situation, I don’t know how to fix myself.
“Most athletes believe if you put in the hard work it will pay off but I have had the ability to work hard taken away from me. It’s now more of a mental, confidence battle.”
The 19-year-old Canadian was diagnosed with Crohn’s, an inflammatory bowel disease, in September 2018, after she returned from a summer training camp in Chile with severe stomach pains and spent more than six weeks going in and out of hospital. She is now back out on the slopes, managing the pain and attempting to adjust to her new reality.
Listening to her body
“With an injury, it’s like, ‘OK, I am going to go the gym, I am going to get stronger, I am going to get physio’. With this, it is, ‘OK, I need to look after my nutrition, I need to make sure I am getting enough calories, I am getting enough rest,” Jepsen said.
“I am definitely still learning how to pace myself and check my expectations. I push very hard, I expect myself to be the last one on the hill almost every day, but I have had to alter that. The thing with Crohn’s is you really can’t push yourself to that point because your body won’t let you.”
The disease does run in the Jepsen family and Mollie has learned from a first cousin who has it that diet is key to managing the symptoms. However, the skier has been perturbed to learn that it is not just a case of avoiding the burgers, pizzas and chocolates.
“I have always eaten extremely healthily but now I can’t eat gluten, I can’t eat dairy and when I am having a flare-up I can’t eat any vegetables or nuts because they are hard to digest,” she laughed. “It’s not at all what I expected. It is almost like sometimes I have to not eat as healthy as I would like to in order to control my pain.”
Small, regular meals are now the order of the day with protein shakes and liquid food featuring prominently, which is all well and good when she is at home in Vancouver, but slightly more tricky when up a mountain in an unfamiliar country. That is when her medical team, alongside a crucial intermediary, come sharply into play.
“My doctors are great. It’s mostly about making sure I am keeping on top of my nutrition and my medication,” Jepsen said. “And then I reach out to my mum, being like, ‘Oh I have got this symptom or that symptom today’ and then she communicates with my doctors at home.
“I have good days and bad days. My good days are what every day was before and I think, ‘Oh this is so awesome’ but at the same time I also think, ‘Oh this is what every day used to be and I wish I could feel this good every day’.”
Onwards and ever upwards
It is a significant burden for anybody to bear, let alone an elite young athlete. But the teenager, who also won silver in the slalom and bronze in both downhill and giant slalom at PyeongChang 2018, is adamant she will not allow the diagnosis to define her.
“Race-wise I still have the same expectations of myself,” she said. “I trained all summer, I still feel like I am fit. It shouldn’t be a problem for me putting in race runs over at the world champs.”
Were she to add some silverware to her already bulging pot at the 2019 World Para Alpine Skiing Championships in Sella Nevea, Italy and Kranjska Gora, Slovenia, it would be a mighty feat.
“This is something I will continue to battle and as soon as I get some results I think I will feel relief,” Jepsen said. “It will just be another thing I have overcome and mentally that would be really good because right now I don’t feel I have overcome anything.”