Olympics-Freestyle-VanLaanen nets inspiration from unlikely source

SOCHI, Russia Fri Feb 7, 2014 9:15am GMT

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SOCHI, Russia Feb 7 (Reuters) - When Angeli VanLaanen straps on her skis and catapults herself down the halfpipe, she looks just like any other freestyle skier.

A bundle of energy, she twists and flips herself around in the air with all the vitality and fearlessness expected of an Olympic freestyler.

But her new-found zest for adventure hides a troubled past, one the American feared she would never recover from.

For more than a decade, VanLaanen lived with a mystery disease that she never knew she had but that left her with aching joints, blurred vision and a pounding headache.

Finally, in 2009, she was diagnosed with Lyme Disease, a debilitating bacteria-based illness that leaves suffers constantly fatigued.

For a woman who had spent her life training to be an elite skier, it was a devastating discovery that forced her to give up her sport for three years to focus on her recovery.

In early 2011, the International Olympic Committee announced that halfpipe skiing would be added to the programme for Sochi but the Games were the last thing on VanLaanen's mind as she battled her health problems.

That was until she found inspiration from an unlikely source, a few months later, in the women's final at the U.S. Open tennis championship.

On the 10th anniversary of the September attacks on New York, Serena Williams was the emotional home-nation favourite but it was her Australian opponent Samantha Stosur that caught VanLaanen's attention.

A massive underdog, Stosur pulled off one of the biggest upsets in U.S. Open history when she not only beat Williams to win her first grand slam singles title but did so having overcome Lyme Disease.

"When I found out about Samantha Stosur, it was the hero I had been looking for - someone to look up to and gain that inspiration that I could do this to, that I could overcome Lyme disease," VanLaanen told Reuters.

"When she won after returning to the sport, it was just such an amazing moment, where I knew 'alright, I can do this too'.

"It really was the turning point for me emotionally."

Reinvigorated, VanLaanen set her sights on making it to the Sochi Olympics. Slowly, but surely, she started to regain her strength and confidence and has now made a full recovery, with no symptoms for more than two years.

Her time away from the sport left her playing catch-up. A new generation of teenagers had arrived, with a bunch of new acrobatic tricks, that she had to quickly master.

But her perseverance paid off as she made the American team for Sochi, at the age 28, virtually a pensioner in a sport dominated by young generation.

"Taking three years off made me question if I'd be able to return to this sport as it's so physically demanding. I've really had a moment of questioning but I'm happy to come back," she said.

"After recovering my health, I took my comeback with a lot of determination and a lot of hard work... that time off gave me an amazing perspective on coming back." (Reporting by Julian Linden, editing by Mitch Phillips.)

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