Amy Yoder-Begley sat in her home this month, meticulously packing foods in preparation for the Beijing Olympics.
She had to make sure she had enough cereal and SoyJoy bars as part of a lifestyle she had grown accustomed to over the past two years. Without adjusting, she wouldn’t be in the Olympics representing the United States in the 10,000 meters.
For a decade, Yoder-Begley knew something was wrong, but doctors were unsuccessful in finding a cause.
Yoder-Begley’s training regimen used to look different than almost any other runner.
Because of her medical mystery, Yoder-Begley had to carefully scout her training spots. The East Noble graduate and Kendallville native trained on routes and tracks with nearby bathrooms. In a sport where endurance and the ability to control and test limits are paramount, Yoder-Begley couldn’t make it through a workout without needing multiple breaks.
“I went through two years where I couldn’t run 30 minutes without having to use the bathroom,” Yoder-Begley said. “All my runs and all my workouts were geared around where can I stop and go to the bathroom.”
Doctors investigated multiple diagnoses: ovarian cysts, irritable bowel syndrome, thyroid issues, even depression. Of all the heart, determination and desire Yoder-Begley has, it was a change in her gut that enabled her to reach the Olympics.
In January 2006, Yoder-Begley met with Dr. Dan Benardot, director of the laboratory for elite performance at Georgia State in Atlanta. Yoder-Begley described her symptoms – fatigue, anemia, bloating, the constant need to go to the bathroom. Without much examination, Benardot had the answer: Yoder-Begley had celiac disease.
“I was like ‘What?’ ” Yoder-Begley said. “He’s, like, you have a wheat allergy. I’m like ‘No I don’t, whatever.’ I had been told so many different things, and he was like ‘No, seriously.’
“He was right.”
Celiac disease is a digestive disease that damages the small intestine, interfering with the absorption of nutrients. Those diagnosed can’t handle gluten, which is commonly found in wheat, rye and barley. It can also be on stamp adhesive, medicines, vitamins, shampoos and toothpaste.
When a person with celiac disease ingests gluten, it destroys the villi, small protrusions that line the small intestine and help absorb nutrients for the bloodstream. Eventually, the condition causes malnourishment.
A study by the University of Maryland in 2003 said one in every 133 Americans may have celiac disease.
In an elite athlete, damage could be worse. Most athletes eat carbohydrates before an event. Many common carbohydrates such as pastas and breads, are devastating for those with gluten intolerance. And going undiagnosed, it can make what Yoder-Begley has accomplished – making the U.S. Olympic team – impossible.
“Very unlikely,” Benardot said of an undiagnosed athlete becoming an Olympian. “It would be very, very difficult, and I just don’t see how it’s possible. The demands at that level are so tremendous, that if you compromise the system in any way, you just can’t do it, can’t keep up with it.”
Within three weeks of being diagnosed, Yoder-Begley began seeing improvements. She could go on longer, uninterrupted runs. She recovered faster from the longer runs. Her joints didn’t hurt. She no longer felt bloated and could eat 4 to 6 hours before she ran rather than the 2 hours to which she had become accustomed.
Yoder-Begley was no longer worried about the anemia that had been previously diagnosed, likely caused by celiac disease. And, along with an eventual move to Nike’s Oregon Project, the company’s running team, her path to the Olympics began.
“I have definitely seen a big change in every aspect of her life,” said her husband, Andrew Begley. “It’s been very nice. Unfortunately, she has a little damage. She’ll have osteoporosis. She’ll have some damage for life from it, but we caught it early enough that we can fix some of the damage of having celiac for 10 years without knowing it.”
Heading to the Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore., in June, Yoder-Begley had been running well and healthy. Then came the 10,000-meter race – and it started out slow.
She started figuring out what times she needed to hit in order to qualify for the Olympics. Yoder-Begley finished third in 31:43.60, 1.4 seconds under the qualifying cut.
“She’s been close, but she was more ready this time,” said her mom, Linda Yoder. “There’s always that little piece that says everyone else wants to be there, too. The way she did it made it a little intense.”
While preparing for the Olympics, Yoder-Begley spoke to the chefs at the Olympic Village and found out they wouldn’t accommodate her allergy. Without accommodations, she’d be living on SoyJoy bars, bananas, organic peanut butter and cereal for almost two weeks. She called the United States Olympic Committee and found a chef there who would cook for her.
She had him take food to Beijing but has to travel from the Olympic village to the American restaurant to eat.
“Their take on it is that they aren’t used to it,” Andrew Begley said. “They don’t want to be blamed for a poor performance at the Olympics.”
And Yoder-Begley doesn’t want to be sick before the race. She will take shuttle buses, a minor inconvenience in her attempt to stay healthy.
She’s envisioned the race already, figuring it’ll be slower than normal as the runners deal with heat, humidity and pollution. She thinks it might be like the trials in Oregon, because that race went out slow, too.
“The goal is to stay in the race as long as possible,” Yoder-Begley said. “If they make a move, make a move and go with them.”
Yoder-Begley realizes that with a good performance in Beijing and her story being told, knowledge about her disease could skyrocket.
“It’d be great if it did,” Yoder-Begley said. “I’m finding more and more restaurants that have gluten-free menus. There are still places that don’t and kind of refuse to serve you, but I’m kind of hoping eventually people raise a little bit more awareness just about where their food comes from and what’s in it and stuff like that.”