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Winning with Crohn’s: How One Athlete Maintains Top Performance

As Volunteer Assistant Coach for the UCLA Bruins women’s tennis team and a former All-American player, Laura Gordon knows how much hard work it takes to be at your best – and how easily health issues can derail it.

Laura began her tennis career in 2002 as a walk on at UCLA, which is one of the top ten division 1 programs in the country, and worked her way to the number 1 singles and doubles positions. During that time, she began experiencing bouts of stomach pain and was eventually diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2006. Crohn’s disease is a chronic inflammatory condition of the gastrointestinal tract, which manifests with abdominal pain and cramping, persistent diarrhea, rectal bleeding, constipation, and more.

Laura shares her personal story about managing her Crohn’s symptoms through careful diet and how it helps her thrive as an athlete.

Long Journey Toward Diagnosis

I first started experiencing symptoms of Crohn’s as a sophomore in college. I’d be sick on and off, but I pretended it was nothing for three years. Finally, it got so bad that I couldn’t leave the house. I didn’t even want to eat. After three years I was finally diagnosed with Crohn’s disease.

It was a long journey getting to the diagnosis. I’d have flare ups during my years in college, but it was never bad enough to do something about until I had the added stress of graduation. When I was diagnosed, I went on medication to manage the inflammation, but still felt sick for the first six months. Thankfully I was only ever hospitalized once, but I was not living a normal life. If I did venture out, I’d have to return home because my stomach was hurting. It also affected my workouts and my tennis game — and that’s really bad because tennis is my job.

Finally, Wellness

During the time I was being diagnosed, my doctor never talked about diet being a factor and never recommended changing it. In hindsight that’s really amazing to me.

While I take medication to manage my symptoms, I wanted more of a normal day-to-day life. I eventually went to see a doctor of alternative medicine, who suggested I try an elimination diet for all the major food allergens for 60 days and then gradually start reintroducing foods. I could feel the difference almost right away. It’s not a miracle cure, but I discovered that I do better when I avoid certain foods.

Knowing that I can eat and actually be comfortable afterwards is definitely worth giving up some of the foods I enjoyed. I have more energy – and it’s consistent, whereas before it was up and down. And that in turn has helped improve my athletic performance.

Making Sustainable Changes

When I was diagnosed, I never really heard people talking about food allergies and sensitivities like I do today. There weren’t as many alternative foods available. Whole Foods Market was the only place that I could find them. I used to spend hours in the store, reading labels and finding new products. My sister has celiac disease (which manifests for her with Crohn’s-like symptoms) and we would call each other and share our discoveries. My family calls Whole Foods Market my best friend.

I used be anxious about eating and going to restaurants. But I took control by learning what I could eat without it making me feel bad. I had to learn to cook and shop differently. And it’s worth it.

My sister and I have run three half marathons to raise money for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA). We’re also part of Team Challenge, the CCFA’s training and fundraising program. Team Challenge raises money for research and runs summer camps for kids with Crohn’s. We initially got involved because we wanted to raise awareness and funds for research, while also challenging ourselves athletically. But it’s been amazing to be around others with Crohn’s and Colitis. It’s really changed my life.

Have you ever had to make big changes to how you eat? Tell us about it in the comments below.

Whether you’re just getting started or are well on your way, Whole Foods Market’s got great resources for your journey to health.

Disclaimer: This information is for reference purposes and is not intended to substitute for medical advice. You should not use this information as self-diagnosis or for treating a health problem or disease. Consult a health care professional for further information about food allergies or sensitivities and other health topics.