Overcoming Physical Adversity to Achieve Athletic Greatness

There are many stories of athletes that overcome physical adversity to reach elite levels. One such amazing story is about Diane Van Deren, a 49 year old ultra-distance runner that underwent brain surgery to recover from lifelong recurrent seizures. Any time she felt a seizure coming on, she would go out and run intensely, which usually prevented the attacks from progressing. During her third pregnancy, she suffered a severe grand mal seizure, which prompted her to eventually undergo removal of a small portion of her temporal lobe, which eventually controlled her problem. In the dozen or so years since she underwent her surgery, she's become one of the the top endurance runners in the world, winning the 300 mile Yukon Arctic Ultra two years ago, and recently being the first woman to finish the 430 mile version last year.


Similar stories come to mind, including Bruce Jenner, the 1976 Olympics decathlon winner, who as a child ran home from school as quickly as possible to take down the bed sheet his mother draped outside his window because he still wet his bed. Wilma Rudolph, another olympic champion, suffered from polio and couldn't walk normally until age 12. 


I've stated in past blogs that poor sleep quality, due to narrowed jaws, poor breathing and inefficient sleep at night, is a common condition in many elite athletes. As a way to compensate for feeling tired all day long, they train intensely and regularly for years or decades, eventually reaching their elite levels. Anecdotally, many long distance runners that I know prefer not to sleep on their backs, and is typically tired when they wake up in the morning, no matter how long they sleep. I'm not suggesting that Ms. Van Deren has this particular problem (although she could have it, since we know that untreated obstructive sleep apnea can aggravate seizures, and pregnancy can aggravate sleep apnea). But I do bring up her story as an example of someone who has overcome so many odds to achieve success.


We know that all modern humans, due to our smaller jaws and crowded teeth, are susceptible to various degrees of sleep-breathing problems. All of us are on a sleep-breathing continuum, where obstructive sleep apnea is only the extreme end. Since elite athletes are humans as well, they'll be susceptible to these same issues, if not more so than normal. 


Come to think of it, untreated sleep apnea is a major cause of bedwetting in young children….


What are your thoughts on this? Do you or someone you know very good at a physical activity to potentially compensate for poor quality sleep? Please enter your comments in the text box below.

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