It's 10 p.m, and we're at a little bar in San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina. Everyone is drinking Fernet and Coke; Angeli VanLaanen is sipping a cup of tea.
Angeli has competed in three Winter X Games in ski superpipe -- her top finish was sixth place in 2009. But you didn't see the 24-year-old Bellingham, Wash., native in last season's X Games because she didn't compete. Her absence was partially because of a pre-season broken back. But there was another reason she was out of the game: In October 2009, she was diagnosed with Lyme disease, a bacteria caused by tick bites that can develop into complications with the joints, heart and nervous system if not treated.
Angeli has started to open up about her symptoms. Recently, she wrote on her Twitter page, "Feeling so sick today! Remembering why the last year of my life was so rough, #Lyme. Don't take health for granted, everyday is a blessing!" But while traveling recently in South America, Angeli talked for the first time publicly about living with the advanced stages of Lyme.
Due to her illness and her desire to stay healthy, Angeli has self-induced curfews, restrictions on sugar and alcohol and strong convictions to treat her body well, which requires discipline while in a disco-loving, wine-producing and chocolate-eating country like Argentina. Hence the tea.
Angeli VanLaanen Gallery
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She admits that her symptoms often get worse at night -- she gets sleepy and sometimes confused. "Knowing about Lyme disease has clued me in on my own mortality," she says. "It has come as a shocking reality that I am not invincible."
She gives me a timeline of her battle with Lyme. "I have experienced symptoms since I was 10. I would go for years feeling fine and then get really sick, which completely stumped the doctors," Angeli says. "In 2008, my symptoms were the worst in my life." She'd just been picked up by Red Bull, Oakley and Atomic, and she was filming for both an Oakley and Atomic team film. She was a top contender to win X Games superpipe, but when she dropped into the pipe she felt dizziness, vertigo, muscle weakness and joint soreness.
"I was always misdiagnosed with mononucleosis," she says. "As for a self-diagnosis, my symptoms weren't constant, so in my mind they could have been the result of a food allergy, not sleeping enough or the flu."
As last winter neared, she still hoped to compete in X Games despite her health, but a fractured vertebrae forced her to reevaluate. "I was too weak to compete," she says. "In the long run, I have seen the injury as a blessing in disguise. It helped me make a decision that has contributed to my overall health."
Instead, she spent last winter skiing powder -- she attended a month-long guide school in Alaska and went heli-skiing for the first time in her life. In the spring, she skied park at Mammoth and in July, she spent a week at Mt. Hood.
Now Angeli takes high doses of antibiotics daily and follows a strict dietary plan, with the hopes of eliminating all of her symptoms. "I still have bad days with severe symptoms, but I am undergoing treatment," she says. "I feel different every day, some days I feel sluggish, others I feel great."
This winter, she'll be living in Park City, Utah, and she says her goal is to return to the same level of competition as before. "Entering the competitive world will be difficult because I need to get my ranking back after taking a year off," she says. "My Lyme disease diagnosis, after not knowing for so many years, has been mentally difficult, not physically. I just need to remember that I can still ski halfpipe."