Staying active with celiac: Tips from an Olympian

By Katherine Ramirez

Amy1Amy Yoder Begley is a middle and long distance runner whose talents took her all the way to Bejjing to compete in the 2008 Olympics.  She’s also a person with celiac disease.  We recently caught up with Amy to learn more about her journey- from diagnosis with celiac disease to racing on the Olympic track.

Thriving: Before the diagnoses, how did the symptoms of celiac disease affect your running

Amy: I would have bloating and stomach aches.  I had a full ride to University of Arkansas and I was expected to perform but I was doubled over in pain at practice. I kept thinking, “What is wrong with me”? My coach would take me to the doctors but they could not find the source of my pain. They suggested everything from ovarian cysts, to colitis, to lactose intolerant.  My diet was scrutinized daily.  I made the suggested changes but I still couldn’t run more than 30 minutes without using the bathroom, (which made running 5ks extremely difficult!)  I couldn’t even eat within 6 hours of running. It really affected my performance and all I could think was, I’m a healthy person, what am I doing wrong?

TH: Once you were finally diagnosed with celiac, how did your physical performance change?

Amy: Once I took gluten out of my diet the transformation was amazing! Two weeks later my bloating went down- down two jean sizes.  Eighteen months later I felt the healthiest I’ve ever been in my entire life.  Before, all my runs and workouts had to be planned and I would constantly worry, “is there a bathroom around?”  It took some time for my body to heal but I had to be patient.  Once I was feeling my best, I trained hard and made the Olympic running team. If Amy2anything, overcoming my health obstacles gave me the strength and inspiration I needed to compete at the Olympic level.

TH: Has your restrictive diet ever made you feel different from your teammates?

Amy: Sometimes.  There’s always a team meal and the teams typically go to Subway for lunch or pasta places for dinner.  Most of the time the coaches forget you can’t eat at these places.  It still bothers me when we go to a coach’s house and everyone is having a celebration cupcake but I can’t. When you’re training you have a serious restrictive diet anyways, but there are plenty of times where everyone is enjoying a type of food together and there’s no alternative for you.

Feeling different is not fun but I always have to remember my health comes first.

TH: Do you have any advice for parents of children with celiac disease who are involved in sports?

Amy: Parents can make a huge difference.  They can pack a treat or a snack so their child always has an alternative.  If you’re traveling for a meet, search out a gluten free baker in the town you’re in and swing by for a special treat.  If the team hosts pizza parties after the game, find a place that provides a gluten free option and ask the coach to order from there.  I coach young athletes now and I believe sometimes it’s as simple as educating other moms and coaches.  I have an entire list of all the allergies my athletes have and I’m probably more in tuned with the seriousness of their conditions than other coaches. I want my athletes to say, “She’s going to understand and think about me when we travel.  She’s actually going to take care of me.”  Really when it comes down to it, I want to be the one to worry about what they can and can’t eat so they focus on what counts- performing to the best of their ability.

To make an appointment with one of our celiac disease experts, please call 617-355-6058 or learn more on our Celiac Disease Program website.