Written by Dr. Brian Bressler, MD, MS, FRCPC on April 5, 2020
Crohn’s Disease is known to feed on tension and stress—part of the daily routine for a professional athlete. Nevertheless, these celebrity athletes with Crohn’s have achieved amazing physical and mental feats, proving that people affected by the disease can still lead healthy, active, and prolific lives.
Over a decade ago, the NFL quarterback experienced a bout of intense stomach pains after eating. Several months later, he was diagnosed with Crohn’s and underwent a surgery to remove of 12 inches of his intestine. Garrard’s story as a professional athlete with Crohn’s is especially notable, as he is now a prominent spokesperson for In the Zone for Crohn’s, a campaign that raises money for Crohn’s research as part of the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America.
Otherwise known as “The Animal”, George Steele forged a long and successful career as a professional wrestler. With over 20 years of experience in the ring, he was finally inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 1995. Although many know of his achievements inside the ring, many are surprised to learn that he battled Crohn’s disease throughout much of his career as a wrestler, dealing with the effects of the disease as early as 1988. Steele has been able to remain healthy in spite of his condition, due to an operation in 2002 to remove his colon.
About two promising years into what would be a 19-year career in the National Hockey League, the Canadian right wing began experiencing troublesome symptoms. In 1987, he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, but this did not stop him from playing hundreds of games and, later, becoming a coach. Now an assistant coach with the Chicago Blackhawks, Dineen has not let Crohn’s prevent him from achieving many important milestones, despite needing to be hospitalized multiple times throughout his life.
Kayaker Carrie Johnson was diagnosed with the condition in 2003, after experiencing weight loss and fatigue so severe that she had to put her training on hold. She regained her health and has since qualified for the Olympics—twice. Johnson’s story as a lifelong athlete with Crohn’s is filled with ups and downs. She has dealt gracefully with disappointments stemming from Crohn’s, including the time she was forced to turn down a place at the 2003 Canoe World Championships.
The British golfer was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease when he was a teenager, in the very same year that he made a fortuitous switch from cricket to golf. Despite his flare-ups, he quickly excelled in the sport and has since golfed in many world competitions. He was once hospitalized during the French Open, only to regain enough strength to return and finish out the competition.
This Super Bowl champion played dozens of games while battling Crohn’s disease. Light was diagnosed while playing his 2001 rookie season, yet he remained on the field as a New England Patriot linebacker for a decade. A three-time Super Bowl champ, Light explains that he missed many games due to illness, as he was unable to take most medications. Now retired, he raises awareness of Crohn’s. He also heads the Matt Light Foundation, which works to instill wholesome values in youth through outdoor learning.
Most professional athletes attempt to cover up their drug use; L.A. Lakers forward Larry Nance Jr. is quite open about it. His use of medications for managing Crohn’s disease (including steroids, prednisone, and Remicade) began shortly after being diagnosed as a 16-year-old. Now eight years down the road, he affirms that he’s in remission and has remained on the court for a promising basketball career.
Baker had always loved to swim, but the fatigue, stomach pains, and weight loss that she experienced as a teen eventually led her to beg her parents to let her quit. Getting a correct diagnosis for her condition took a long time: after being told that she was suffering from a bout of mono, she was finally diagnosed with Crohn’s and put on medication. It didn’t stop Baker from qualifying as a swimmer for the Summer 2016 Olympic Games, nor from winning a gold and silver medal in Rio last year.
It seems that nothing can stop “Theo” Fleury. He was diagnosed with Crohn’s in his late twenties, but his condition didn’t stop him from playing over 1,000 games in the NHL. In addition to his NHL career, Fleury started his own clothing line and opened a concrete business. After experiencing sexual abuse at the hand of his former coach, Fleury became a public speaker raising awareness and support for sexual abuse victims. As if that weren’t enough, he heads up an annual golf tournament that has raised millions for Crohn’s research, in addition to a hockey camp to inspire and instruct young hockey players.
The NFL offensive tackle has had to sit out several games due to Crohn’s, but not for the reasons you might think. It’s not his flare-ups that keep him on the bench—it’s his use of medical marijuana for managing the symptoms of the disease that placed him in a suspension last year. According to interviews, he takes the drug to manage the symptoms and the pain from his two related intestinal surgeries. Henderson has said that he is considering taking legal action against the NHL so he can remain on the field regardless of his disease and chosen medication.
Softball player Tairia Flowers defied all odds when she experienced a severe flare-up of Crohn’s during the pre-Olympics tour for the Athens Olympics games in 2004. Unlike other Olympians who had been undergoing a final period of intense training, Flowers had been forced to go on bed rest. Instead of eating an optimal diet full of protein and vitamins, she was only able to consume bread and plain pasta. This doesn’t look like a recipe for success, but in spite of her fatigue and severe symptoms, she persevered, played in the 2004 Olympics, and won alongside her softball team.