Healthy Living

Olympic Snowboarder Battles Rheumatoid Arthritis and Goes for the Gold

Olympic Snowboarder Battles Rheumatoid Arthritis and Goes for the Gold

Photo credit: Kari Rowe and Excelle Sports

It was only three months prior to the 2014 Olympic Games that Canadian snowboarder, Spencer O'Brien, sat in her doctor's office, crying and trying to decide if she should give up her dreams of winning a gold medal. It was at this time that her rheumatoid arthritis (RA) pain was at its worst.

Every morning, when the 25-year-old woke up, she felt heavy and swollen and as though she was suffocating inside the body of a 90-year-old. Spencer had a lot of pain and difficulty just walking down the flight of stairs in her home. Her pain was so bad that she was afraid to climb down the stairs to get to her kitchen for breakfast. Spencer says that the joints in her shoulders were so full of inflammation that it hurt just to reach up into the cabinets for the dishes she needed to eat her meals.

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Spencer had a difficult time at the local gym as well. While most of her pain would subside by the time she arrived at the gym, she still had a tough time pushing her body to perform the exercises she needed in order to reach her Olympic dreams. Spencer returned to the doctor's office and broke down, saying that she knew something was wrong inside of her. She knew in her heart (and mind) that she was sick.

After two long and excruciating years of complaining about and dealing with pains, aches, injuries, ineffective surgeries, and inadequate or intolerable therapeutic treatments, Spencer's doctor finally diagnosed her with RA. RA is a disease where the immune system gradually attacks and destroys the body's tissues. Over time, the swelling and inflammation of the disease could cause joint deformity and bone erosion.

How passion led her through

A diagnosis of RA would typically cause many athletes to become instantly crippled, but Spencer had a moment of inspiration.

Long before her health had deteriorated, the young British Columbia girl had fallen in love with snowboarding "because she hated it."

Spencer is a descendant of the Kwakwaka'wakw/Haida people, who are bands of Canada's First Nations people. She grew up with her family in the small skiing town of Altar Island. Spencer's older sister started snowboarding at only 11-years-old and inspired her to start practicing in the winter sports as well.

Spencer claims she "sucked" at first, but she could not bring herself to stop trying.

She told Excelle Sports that she was super competitive and enjoyed being the best person in everything she tried. She claims that she was really bad at it at first but found it super challenging and humbling to the point that she just wanted to keep doing it.

The thrill of the sport

Spencer loved the thrill of cutting through fresh powder and of being outside. She felt like she had the liberty to express and create herself when she was out there alone on the slopes practicing the sport she was so quickly falling in love with. She says that snowboarding is very different from other sports in that you can enjoy the freedom of being able to perform it in any manner that you wish.

Spencer debuted at the X Games by 2007. It was in the X Games that Spencer was recognized as an excellent competitor in the slopestyle event. It is in the slopestyle event that competitors get the opportunity to present their best skills and jumping tricks all while speeding swiftly down the could course of rails and ramps. Spencer was able to win one bronze medal in only her second appearance at the X Games and a silver medal in her third attempt.

By the time the 2012 to 2013 season rolled around, her knees began to hurt and become stiff. Spencer was trying out for the Olympic qualifying events for Sochi. However, she soon found that it took her longer and longer to warm up enough for her runs. Spencer eventually developed several joint injuries and a case of bursitis in one of her shoulders. She had a difficult time using her arms during her competitions. None of the muscles in her upper body seemed to work as effectively as they had before. She was becoming dismayed but still refused to stop her attempt at qualifying for the Olympics.

Spencer improperly self-diagnosed her medical issues with growing older and competing in a very high impact, rough activity. Spencer had an entire team working together to work in her treatments throughout that qualifying year. She says it was very rough competing, practicing, and maintaining treatments through all of her injuries.

Even with all of the treatment, aches, and pains, Spencer was still able to manage the achievement of yet another bronze medal in the 2013 X Games slopestyle event in Aspen. She finally qualified for her spot on Team Canada and was able to take a restful summer of of practicing. While on break, Spencer was able to take some time away from the slopes and concentrate instead on rehabilitating herself with trainers and weights. It was her goal to become as strong as she possibly could with the help for therapy. It was also during her "time off" that she had to undergo surgery to correct the bursitis in her shoulder and she began doing more gym and training sessions on dry land than most professional snowboarders do during their season.

Spencer had just begun to regain some of her lost muscle when several mysterious injuries began to strike. On one unsuspecting day, a sack of fluid known as a Baker's cyst popped up behind her knee. The cyst was indicative of a severe knee injury but the MRI came back without showing any signs of injury. At the recommendation of her doctor, she tried using other treatments, including cortisone shots, but the pain only worsened.

Being left in a state of limbo really depressed Spencer. She felt as though she was having setbacks every time she made a little bit of progress. Feeling as though she had been living in the dark for so long, she was actually relieved when her doctor diagnosed her with RA on November 25, 2013. Her and her doctors finally knew what was wrong and how to start fixing it.

Spencer's doctors went through several different medications before they finally found the right prescription. Her prescription was not perfect, however. The medication that Spencer took did help in treating the majority of her symptoms, but it also, unfortunately, left her more susceptible to infections and other illnesses. Even with the added threat of infection, Spencer was finally able to return to the slopes without too much pain and stiffness.

Spencer went on to win yet another bronze medal at the 2014 X Games and to make the final round of the slopestyle event in Sochi after only a few weeks of training. At the Olympics, however, Spencer ended up falling during two of her three final runs and walked away with last place.

In 2016, Spencer made her 10th appearance in the X Games and finally made it to the top of podium in the slopestyle event. It was only this year that Spencer made her RA publicly known.

Spencer hopes that the story of how she overcame her illness and was able to continue the pursuit of dreams will be an inspiration to others who suffer from this debilitating disease. She believes that everyone must persevere just a bit in order to find the best solutions. And, once you find the solution that works for you, you can do anything. Spencer says that RA doesn't have to debilitate you if you don't let it.


Jackson-Gibson, A. (2017, July 18). How Canadian snowboarder Spencer O’Brien continues to beat rheumatoid arthritis and the rest of the pro tour. [Web]. In Excelle. Retrieved from: