Living With - Not Suffering From - Crohn's Disease: Olympian Carrie Johnson

I was in my first year of undergraduate work at UCSD and starting my first year of senior level sprint kayak training when I started having minor G.I. issues - I thought I just had a stomach bug and when they continued I thought it might be stress related. Being a competitive and strong willed person, I was determined to make it through and continued training and classes. Pretty quickly, I was not able to keep up in the workouts and continued to get more fatigued. Not long after that, I developed a fissure and then an abscess. To make a long story short, I was bounced around from doctor to doctor as they tried to figure out what was going on and treated the individual symptoms along the way. I had a short window of feeling better and competed in the World Championships Team Trials. I made the team in a non-Olympic event; the k4 (four person kayak) 1000m. About a month later I had to decline my nomination because of my health, but I was finally diagnosed as having Crohn’s disease. I had never heard of Crohn’s or Colitis before and my first instinct was to research the disease. Initially, it really scared me to read about all of the potential outcomes and the accompanying statistics. It took some time for me to see that I couldn’t worry about what may or may not happen and that I needed to focus on the things I could control and continue to live my life. From the beginning it didn’t bother me to talk about having Crohn’s Disease. I always felt that if I couldn’t talk about it, it was something I was ashamed of and that I hadn’t done anything wrong to end up with the disease. At one point, I received a Facebook message from another UCSD student asking me about Crohn’s Disease and in my response I asked him if he was living with Crohn’s Disease also. When he replied back, he thanked me for using the phrase ‘living with” instead of “suffering from” Crohn’s. It was a distinction I had never really thought about, but have always thought to be very important since it was pointed out to me.

I remained involved in kayaking by sitting on the coaches’ boat and helping with video-taping the practices. As I started to feel better, I began working out little by little and eventually built back up to a full training load. Being forced to take time off gave me a new appreciation for being able to train and gave me extra motivation. The following year, I was named to my first Olympic Team! In addition to achieving my athletic dream, I saw that I could live any life I wanted despite Crohn’s. Walking in to the Olympic Stadium in Athens Greece is still one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had.

I continued to train and finish my classes and slowly began to find a new normal. Eventually it became part of my daily routine to take my meds and to be aware of bathroom locations in new places - just in case. I found a GI doctor whom I trusted and worked with closely to maintain my health. He also helped me with planning for traveling abroad, which was important since most of my competitions would take me out of the country for several weeks at a time.

I qualified for my second Olympic Team in 2008 and I remained generally healthy until 2009, when I had another flare. I worked with my doctor to find different medications, but was very sick and extremely fatigued by the smallest things for most of the year. Everything culminated with a week in the hospital and on and off talk of surgeries. This year was very difficult and reminded me how frustrating Crohn’s can be. Eventually, I did go back into remission and then slowly began to start training again. I was very cautious about returning to training and began to really look at my training program and modify it to focus on the quality of each workout and the quality of the rest I was getting between practices. In August of 2010, I competed at World Championships in Poznan, Poland – exactly a year to the week from when I had been in the hospital. As hard a 2009 was, 2010 reminded me that that it will get better and that Crohn’s won’t stop me from the things I want to do.

Earlier this summer, I had the honor of representing the US in my third Olympic Games - in London. Two days after competing, I flew back to the states and began my next life as a first year student at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. I have been healthy and I hope that it stays that way but either way I will continue living with Crohn’s.