Christine Nesbitt: Olympians Live with Celiac Disease Too

Christine Nesbitt: Olympians Live with Celiac Disease Too2016-11-30T11:39:36+00:00
Photo ©: Mathew Stockman

Photo ©: Mathew Stockman

As an elite athlete, pushing my body through pain is what I have learned to do. It is never easy to push through pain. You will always hurt, but as your pain threshold rises, you can push further. With years of challenges and learning how best to overcome or work around them, you can feel like nothing is insurmountable. Or at least that’s how I have perceived things. I believed that nothing was written in stone. You can achieve so much when you use your creativity and the help and creativity of those around you.

I am now 28, but I have had stomach issues since I was about 22. I didn’t think much of it until I realized, at 27, that stabbing pains in my gut and running to the washroom at any given moment on a daily basis is not normal or healthy. I knew of celiac disease, ulcerative colitis, and other digestive issues, but I didn’t think I could have permanent problems like those. I thought maybe I had an ulcer. This made sense to me. A family history of ulcers coupled with the stressful environment of high-level competition had me assuming this was the likely (and less permanent) cause of my stomach ailments. I never thought I’d have anything that would not go away in my off-season. After all, this is when I have time to recover and heal from the mentally and physically taxing racing season.

My stomach pain and discomfort only grew worse. Finally, I was diagnosed with celiac disease one year ago. I was very surprised with the diagnosis. A gluten-free regime would be a permanent way of life for me, not a lifestyle choice. I was sad knowing of all the delicious things I would no longer be able to eat. I have since adopted the more productive view that these foods cause me more harm than their fleeting tastiness could ever deliver. I no longer find myself missing out or yearning for these foods. I have learned it isn’t always about building pain tolerance. My stomach pain is not something I have to push through, nor is it healthy for me to do so.

My first year travelling and competing while being gluten-free was not easy. For the first competition on the road in Salt Lake City, I didn’t bring enough of my own gluten-free options; it was a hungry weekend! I got my hand on some beef jerky the last day after racing and I could not eat it fast enough. It was the first bit of protein I’d had in a couple days. Since that learning experience (though I did think I was prepared before heading south of the boarder), things have gone a lot smoother.

I’ve also been lucky to have a very supportive coach, who makes sure I am taken care of. For the last two stretches on the road, she packed an entire suitcase of snacks for me to eat so I didn’t have to worry. Healthy food is extremely important to my performance and recovery, and being gluten-free can definitely be an obstacle. I do enjoy the challenge and have found there is even a benefit to my strict diet. I’m not tempted by American donuts, Dutch cookies, German cakes, or any of those international treats while on the road! With a little bit of planning and awareness, I am just as well fed and healthy as I have ever been. Oh, and my insides aren’t waging outright war on me anymore.

Photo ©: Fabrizio Bensch

Photo ©: Fabrizio Bensch


Christine Nesbitt
Canadian Long Track Speed Skater
2010 Olympic Champion
First published in the Inside Tract® newsletter issue 190 – 2014