Life-altering illness only made Kirsten Sweetland stronger

Life-altering illness only made Kirsten Sweetland stronger


'Behind every setback there is a lesson,' says the veteran triathlete

By Kirsten Sweetland for CBC Sports
July 6, 2016
Kirsten Sweetland battled through multiple bacterial infections that threatened her life if not cared for. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press) Kirsten Sweetland battled through multiple bacterial infections that threatened her life if not cared for. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

In 2014 I was finally reaping the rewards of a comeback that was five years in the making. In the hunt for a World Series overall medal, I was having my best year yet on the World Triathlon Series circuit.

I found myself on podiums at my sport's highest level, as well as the Commonwealth Games. I was finally successfully chasing my dream of world-class status...until I made a last-minute decision to add one more World Series event to my schedule nearing the end of the season.

Racing with a chest cold, and after a rainstorm in the downtown harbour of Stockholm, a fourth-place finish kept me in the running for the coveted overall series medal. But a week later at the series Grand Final, I found myself on the side of the road by mid race, being sick off the side of my bike and more ill than I’ve ever been in my life.

I was exhausted. Defeated. And didn’t know it then, but two long years of recovery would stretch in front of me as I fought multiple bacterial infections that could threaten my life if not cared for.

The infection caused numb limbs, restricted blood flow, fibromyalgia, headaches, brain fog, stomach pain, open sores, swelling, "toxic” blood and debilitating fatigue, which plagued my 2015 season.

At this point I could have lived in a state of “why me?” but I’ve been competing at the highest level of my sport since I was 18 and I’ve had more than my fair share of trouble, so I’ve become pretty good at handling such situations.

 
Sweetland trained completely alone and throughout the winter months in the snow. (Photo courtesy Blake Jorgenson) Sweetland trained completely alone and throughout the winter months in the snow. (Photo courtesy Blake Jorgenson)

Ill-fated race

It's been nearly two years since the ill-fated race in Stockholm and I've now spent 15 months on antibiotics. Thanks to Red Bull and their incredible medical team, I’m able to live a normal day-to-day life and train up to a pretty normal standard.

One positive thing I can draw from this past year is that my illness kept me at home. I'm used to being on the road in upwards of nine months a year so to spend the winter at home in Whistler has been amazing. I've adopted some unusual training habits.

Training completely alone and throughout the winter months in the snow definitely raised some questions. But I honestly loved every minute.

Running in the snow is one of my new favourite activities. Cross-country skiing and mountain biking are great tools for strength and fitness. Sometimes getting outside your routine is the best thing for your performance.

Keeping things fresh is important when you've been competing for two decades. It's not as if I had a choice, but spending the winter at home proved to be something I can see myself doing in the future on my own accord, not just bound by illness.

 
Sweetland has endured a near decade of trials and tribulations. (Photo courtesy of Kirsten Sweetland) Sweetland has endured a near decade of trials and tribulations. (Photo courtesy of Kirsten Sweetland)

Collapsed in heat

My first year on the World Cup circuit in 2007 I was poised to make the Beijing Olympic team.

In our selection event where a top-eight finish was an automatic stamped ticket to the Games, I found myself in a battle for the first three spots with the world's best on a hot summer day in Iowa.

But 9.6 kilometres into the 10k run, I collapsed in the heat and did not finish the race. And so began the near decade of trials and tribulations.

Nine fractures, two torn plantar fascia, two concussions, a parasite, and a chronic bacterial infection.

Call it bad luck, call it bad decision making or poor genetics, at the end of the day why or how isn't what's important.

What I've learned is what you make of a situation and how you move forward is all the matters. Control the things you can control and let go of the "why me."

Behind every setback there is a lesson. Some as simple as "don't ride behind that girl" like the time I got taken out on the bike, twice breaking my helmet and suffering two concussions in six days. That simple lesson claimed an entire season.

 
Sweetland is a motivated athlete who never needed a coach standing over her. (Photo courtesy Kirsten Sweetland) Sweetland is a motivated athlete who never needed a coach standing over her. (Photo courtesy Kirsten Sweetland)

Intuitive decisions

Over the years I’ve learned what works for me and what doesn't. I'm a pretty motivated athlete and I don't need a group or a coach standing over me to get my work done. Being on my own has forced me to make intuitive decisions, thus becoming more in tune with my body.

I can manage my time better and get more sleep. Though I am not a government-funded athlete, I’m fortunate enough to have a few loyal companies who have stood by me and their support has made this possible. I owe everything to Red Bull.

They have stretched and bent over backwards to be everything I need and I don’t know where I’d be without them. And the community support in Whistler has been amazing!

It’s humbling to see who stands by your side when things are tough. My friends and family are always there for me all the way too!

Though I have lots to be grateful for, there were definitely psychological challenges to overcome. The interesting thing in this case was the infection: it has a neurological component and I have been tested and found to have a lot of neurotoxins.

At times before I was on antibiotics, I felt overly emotional or down, which is not generally in my nature. Luckily the antibiotics helped with this and I feel like I’m able to take things as they are, day by day and one step at a time.

I’ve always been intrigued by what makes an athlete great at what they do. Nature or nurture? A genetic freak born with physiological advantages or someone just like you and me who through countless hours became a master at their craft. Maybe both? What about mental strength? Is that something some are gifted with or something that's learned?

Sweetland doubts she would be a top-level triathlete if she didn't move to Victoria.
Despite bumps and bruises along the way, Sweetland became a world junior champion. (Photo courtesy Kirsten Sweetland)  Despite bumps and bruises along the way, Sweetland became a world junior champion. (Photo courtesy Kirsten Sweetland)

Boundless energy

I was born with boundless energy. I didn't sleep past 3 a.m., until I was a toddler. I tried my hand at a number of sports at an early age. Gymnastics, dance, ice skating, synchronized swimming and any other sport where you had to wear makeup it seemed.

Oddly enough, I fell in love with triathlon by second grade. Always competitive in nature and absurdly energetic, it seemed to be a good fit. My dad had competed in triathlon in the 80s and became a mentor and even competitor on the odd occasion.

By age 14, I was training at the National Triathlon Centre part time alongside Canada's best athletes up to two decades my senior. I was a wide eyed little sponge soaking up every bit of information I could.

In the early days of my career everything came easy. My parents would bump me up in age categories hoping I would lose so I could learn that aspect as well, but somehow I’d manage to come out on top. Once I got into my teens it seemed my path got much more difficult than was necessary or fair.

I was denied entry into my first junior nationals because of a new rule change about minimum age. I was involved in a crash at my first nationals the next year and ran back into fourth position when the top three would go to the world championships.

But I did become a junior world champion before the real lessons began. Before the injuries and illness tested my ability to endure and eventually overcome. It’s crazy to think that after all that I’ve been through I’m now in my final preparation for the Olympic Games.

This spring I was able to show enough fitness and potential with only one month training behind me to be one of Canada’s top-three performers and selected by Triathlon Canada to represent our country in Rio!

I owe this to my loyal support team and coach who never let me admit defeat and helped to get me into the best shape possible given the timeline, which when laid out seemed near impossible.

Over the course of this bumpy road (which I like to joke has more like jumps than bumps) I’ve learned to take one day at a time and let go of the frustration that comes from things not going the way you want them to.

So now what? More of the same. I'm going to be at home, putting one foot in front of the other all the way to Rio.

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