Warm-ups are a part of every athlete’s regimen, but for the USA Gymnastics Team’s tumbling and trampoline champion Kristle Lowell, the term has an entirely different meaning.
In 2013, the 21-year-old became the first American woman to win the world double-mini trampoline title since 1996. Although she can leap 20 feet or more into the air on the trampoline, she faces another large hurdle just preparing to perform her sport.
Kristle Lowell has Raynaud’s disease (aka Raynaud’s syndrome and Raynaud’s phenomenon). Her hands and feet become very painful and numb when exposed to cold, a particular problem while working out in her Michigan gym. “All gyms are cold in winter,” she says, “About 60 to 65 degrees, which is normal for any athletic facility.”
“When your feet get numb and you can’t feel them, it’s dangerous,” she explains. “If you can’t use your toes to help you balance, you can fall off the trampoline and get seriously hurt.”
Lowell copes by taking an extra hour before every practice to perform an elaborate routine to warm her body. She prepares by donning leggings, headbands and sleeved tops, with strategically placed heat packs. Special trampoline shoes constructed of thin nylon provide some warmth without sacrificing flexibility in her toes. “I run and then do a series of back-flips over and over to get the blood moving into my feet,” she says. But when she trains, she must have bare feet and leotards.
She explains her extra clothing layers to the younger gymnasts who ask why she covers her arms, legs and feet during warm-ups. They have given her the nickname “Icy Toes,” she laughs. She suspects some of them who also complain of cold feet may have Raynaud’s. According to the Raynaud’s Association, Redding, CT, some 5-10% of people have Raynaud’s – and the vast majority of sufferers are women.
Coaches in the past have told Lowell the reason she’s cold is because she’s too thin, or because she doesn’t train hard enough. “They would tell me to ‘suck it up’ and just work through it. They said my problem was that I was too skinny.” Lowell eats six meals a day, but weighs barely 100 pounds. She says her body works so hard to keep warm that it burns through her energy reserves. “I have to keep jumping in place to stay warm.”
Lynn Wunderman, founder and chair of the Raynaud’s Association, said Lowell’s experience is not unusual. “Even many doctors minimize the pain of Raynaud’s and dismiss the symptoms. These could be signs of a more serious, underlying disease such as scleroderma or lupus. And while there’s no cure as yet, there are ways to help avoid Raynaud’s attacks and minimize the symptoms.”
Lowell, a Chicago native and senior at Lewis University, first experienced Raynaud’s symptoms at the age of 13. Her physician diagnosed it right away, taking one look and touching her freezing hands. She has a positive ANA (anti-nuclear antibody), but has not been diagnosed with an underlying rheumatic disorder. Hers is “primary” Raynaud’s.
Lowell did much of her own research into the condition, finding information and support from the Raynaud’s Association. “I approached them, offering to do whatever I could to raise awareness,” she said.
“People really don’t know what Raynaud’s is,” she laments. “ They don’t know that it’s a medical condition that needs to be diagnosed and treated.” Lowell’s goal is to help athletes, especially, who have to train in cold gyms – cheerleaders, gymnasts, dancers and others.
But it’s the trainers who present the biggest challenge. “The standard practice is to ice muscles and injuries of athletes – a huge no-no for someone with Raynaud’s. When I broke a tiny bone in my foot because I couldn’t feel my feet – because they were numbed by Raynaud’s – the first thing they wanted to do was to apply ice. I told them that would be the worst thing to do.”
She has found a supportive ear from the Team USA coach, George Drew, M.D., based in South Bend, IN. He talked to the trainers about using heat packs with Lowell instead of ice. “I was the only athlete able to use the hot tub at World Championships,” she smiled. “I have the greatest coach and doctor in the world.”
“Dr. Drew has worked so hard to make sure I am comfortable at practice and ready to perform at my best in competition,” she says. “Unlike other doctors, who would say ‘it’s just your toes,’ my coach understands how much even just one toe being frozen can affect a performance.”
For now, the world champion and record holder is working to defend her title in November, when the world championship in tumbling and trampoline is held in Daytona Beach, FL. Lowell’s other lofty goal is to reach new heights in Raynaud’s awareness.