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Michelle’s Story

Overcoming colon disease to become a GB triathlete

Sport has always been part of my life: I ran track at school, cross-country for my county, and was a club swimmer. Growing up in the Staffordshire moorlands and now living in Nottinghamshire, the countryside became my training ground – I love the escapism. At the age of 13 I won a bike after being named pupil of the year at school, but it wasn’t until I was 22 that I actually got on a road bike and trained for my first triathlon.

At 21 I was studying for my dietetics degree at Nottingham University. It was during the summer of my second year when training for the Nottingham half-marathon that I began to develop health issues. To start with I was passing a lot of blood. Ironically I was studying gastrointestinal diseases at the time. After some very invasive investigations I was regretfully diagnosed with ulcerative colitis.

The disease advanced rapidly over the next couple of years, despite this I kept training and I became interested in triathlons after entering a university aquathon and finishing first female. I then went to watch my dad (who is my inspiration) compete in an Olympic distance triathlon and from that moment on I knew I wanted to be a triathlete. I managed to compete in my first sprint triathlon two months before I was first admitted to hospital.

Due to embarrassing toilet issues I had to train in isolation, I continued training in the countryside but I did miss the social aspect of training with a team and had to be selective with my races. For the next three years I was in and out of hospital being pumped full of intravenous steroids and placed on a concoction of different medications to try and get my symptoms under control.

During Christmas 2010 I was admitted to hospital and was told that my large bowel was disintegrating inside me, meaning surgery was the only option left. I was already mentally prepared for the eventuality of having an ileostomy and stoma bag, after months of deliberating whether this was the best option for me to get my quality of life back. Going to the toilet 20+ times a day, excruciating abdominal pains, being anaemic and tired due to extensive blood loss, frequent dehydration and weight loss were not symptoms that suited my lifestyle, and I was ready to try anything to get my life back. So after spending New Year’s Eve in a hospital bed I underwent major surgery in January 2011 and had my whole large bowel removed.

I woke up six hours later with a stoma bag and a large vertical scar down the center of my abdomen. Monday 10th January was the first day of my big challenge to get my fitness back. My dad brought me a pile of triathlon magazines into hospital and I sat in my bed writing a list of races I wanted to do – starting with a sprint triathlon in the summer. I also wrote a list of all the things I wanted to do after surgery which I hadn’t been able to do whilst I was ill – training for a triathlon and going for a bike ride were two of these! Needless to say I’ve conquered both…

So five months post-op I raced the Rother Valley Sprint Tri, finishing in 1:30hrs with a 19:47min 5km at the end, finishing 20th female and fourth in my age-group. In 2014 I smashed all of my PBs and qualified to represent Great Britian at the European Sprint Triathlon Championships in Geneva 2015. After a year of dedicated training, I am proud to say that I won a Silver Medal in Geneva and have qualified for the Europeans again in Lisbon 2016 where my ultimate goal is to win gold and become European Champion.

I enjoy pushing myself both physically and mentally and believe that the challenge I faced overcoming surgery as given me a “no guts all glory” attitude, I am more determined than ever. Whenever I am tired or really struggling in a race I dig deep and reflect on the pain and turmoil I overcame during my illness and remember the times when I was unable to compete and how miserable that felt. This is all the motivation I need to step up my performance and put in the effort to get me over the finish line or through a lung burning training session!

My focus for the next 12 months is to not only continue to train, compete and enjoy my active lifestyle but to get the message out there that having a stoma is not the end of the world – it is actually the start of a better one! There are no limits to what can be achieved after overcoming such a traumatic challenge and I want to help raise awareness for those who have stomas that they can do anything they put their mind (and body) to – and who knows- one day there maybe an ostomate on the olympic podium.

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