By Ronni Shulman
When USA Gymnastics Champion Kristle Lowell won the Gold Medal at the National Trampoline and Tumbling Championship in Providence, RI in June, few of the cheering spectators knew just how many twists and turns she had taken to get there.
The 24-year-old athlete holds the world record in the double-mini trampoline event, a distinction she won in 2013. Her “back story” makes her distinction as impressive as virtually any athlete’s.
Kristle (featured in the Winter 2014 issue of Cold Cuts) has Raynaud’s phenomenon. Growing up in Chicago, her over-sensitivity to cold was acute, but it didn’t stop her from pursuing her love of sports. The trampoline was a natural fit for the lithe girl, who found her body was especially flexible and adaptable for mastering all the jumps and flips.
Unlike the majority of Raynaud’s sufferers, who don’t seek treatment for the disorder, Kristle was diagnosed at 13 by a doctor who felt her cold hands. Although blood tests showed she had a positive ANA (anti-nuclear antibody), a marker for an inflammatory rheumatic disorder, no underlying condition was observed. Her initial diagnosis: “primary” Raynaud’s.
That changed in 2013, when Kristle was examined by rheumatologist Dr. Robert Katz, Professor of Medicine at Rush Medical College and Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago. Kristle recalls, “I was showing off my flexibility when Dr. Katz jumped up and said, ‘Finally we have a diagnosis!’”
The diagnosis was Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS), a cluster of connective tissue disorders that commonly leads to hyper-extensible joints (joints that move in greater amounts than expected). Raynaud’s phenomenon (aka Raynaud’s syndrome or disease) can also be a byproduct of EDS.
“When I visit Dr. Katz, he brings in all the medical residents to see if anyone can guess my diagnosis when I start doing my contortion act,” she says. Her pain is managed by a nonsurgical treatment called prolotherapy or “proliferation therapy.” Prolotherapy works by stimulating the body’s own natural healing mechanisms to repair injured musculoskeletal tissue. Dr. Ross A. Hauser, Medical Director of Caring Medical Regenerative Medicine Clinics, Oak Park, IL, is Kristle’s doctor there.
“Dr. Hauser is probably one of the most knowledgeable people about EDS and prolotherapy,” says Kristle. “Prolotherapy has changed my life, and it’s the reason I’m still an athlete today.”
EDS has not hampered her ability to win championships, obviously. Indeed, the joint mobility may contribute to her skill on the trampoline. But Kristle pays a steep price in coping with the pain of both EDS and Raynaud’s. “The pain is at its worst when I sit still, so I try to exercise as much as possible,” she says. “Sitting for prolonged periods of time hurts so if I’m on a plane I do splits in the aisle.”
Sleeping is also difficult. “It’s very easy to roll over and have a joint slip out of place. My hands get so cold during a Raynaud’s attack that my touch screen on my phone doesn’t register my touch,” she adds.
Pursing her sport in cold gyms with minimal attire is especially problematic. She trains five days a week, three hours a day, and can jump as high as 20 feet or more. “In winter, my toes freeze and I can’t warm them because my trampoline shoes are taped to my foot. The hardest part is getting warm,” she explains.
“I take about an hour before every practice to warm up,” Kristle says, describing her elaborate routine of running and back-flips to get the blood moving into her extremities. “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.” She says she’s developed enough “air awareness” that even if her toes have no feeling, she can still compete. “Some days landings can be so hard it’s almost a blessing to have numb feet.”
Most gyms and athletic facilities are kept at 60-65 degrees Fahrenheit, so Kristle often wears leggings, headbands and long-sleeved tops. She also uses heat packs. But when she’s competing, she must have bare feet and leotards.
“My teammates call me ‘icy toes’ because they see how my feet turn blue.”
Kristle has found great support from the Raynaud’s Association. “I love reading all the articles on the website. I love knowing there is a community of people out there just like me, and it’s great having a place to point to when people don’t understand Raynaud’s,” she says.
“People always recommend products or have helpful tips on how to stay warm.”
One of her favorite products is Limbkeepers®, a sponsor of the Raynaud’s Association. These non-compression arm sleeves, leg sleeves and gloves protect the skin from abrasions and bruising, providing knit cushioned comfort without bulk. Company President Deborah Vezan, an apparel executive, created the first products as a solution for her elderly mother’s easily bruised tender skin – but then found they worked great for Raynaud’s sufferers. She says, “Our products are helping many sufferers like Kristle and in the process raising awareness for Raynaud’s.”
Kristle also finds comfort in UGG® boots, and always travels with a heated blanket, even in summer. “You never know when air conditioning might just be overwhelming,” she notes. On the top of her wish list is an Antarctic expedition jacket – the kind the scientific researchers use in subzero temperatures. “I don’t have plans to go to Antarctica,’ she says, ‘but to a Raynaud’s sufferer, Chicago feels like Antarctica!”
Since 2013, when she became the first American woman to win the world double-mini trampoline title since 1996, Kristle has continued to seek new heights, literally. She moved back to her hometown of Chicago, from Michigan, and is training with a new coach – the former national tumbling and trampoline team coach of Bulgaria.
In addition to her win in Providence, she won a Gold Medal at the Tumbling and Trampoline Elite Challenge in Colorado Springs, a Gold Medal in Spain and a Team Bronze medal in Denmark. The next Tumbling and Trampoline World Championship is in Bulgaria in 2017. “There’s a Team Medal on the line there, and I really hope I can be part of it,” she says.
Despite her obstacles, Kristle says she has never been happier in her life. “I have a lot to look forward to,” she says. Her ultimate goal? “One day, I hope to do the first back flip in Antarctica!”