Sweetland reflects on Rio experience 

Triathlete diagnosed with Lyme disease weeks before Games

click to enlarge PHOTO BY BLAKE JORGENSEN - OLYMPIC REFLECTION Kirsten Sweetland, shown here training last winter, placed 41st at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 20.
  • Photo by Blake Jorgensen
  • OLYMPIC REFLECTION Kirsten Sweetland, shown here training last winter, placed 41st at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 20.

Kirsten Sweetland faced her share of adversity just to get a shot at the Olympic Games.

But the Whistler resident battled through plenty more once she was there.

The 27-year-old had not been feeling like herself for months as she mounted a challenge for one of three Canadian women's triathlon slots at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Weeks before the Games, Sweetland was diagnosed with late-stage Lyme disease, which she revealed publicly in an Instagram post after finishing 41st in the triathlon on Aug. 20.

Speaking on Aug. 29, Sweetland said she's still working through all that happened.

"I had to sort of take a step back and gain some perspective. My goalposts had shifted quite a bit in two years going from wanting a podium to just hoping to make the team. Once I made the team, I tried to feel better as fast as I could but I didn't exactly know how my body was going to respond to that effort," she said. "Training is one thing, but racing is another. I was hoping that it would all come together.

"At the end of the day, everything that I had, I put it all out there. There's nothing more I could have done, so I have to be happy with that. But the nature of being an athlete is you always want more."

Just making the Olympics had been just out of reach for the Nanaimo native, as she collapsed in the late stages of a major qualifier in Iowa for the 2008 Beijing Games and injuries forced her to halt her training for the 2012 London Games.

Though not ready to compete in prime condition, Sweetland soaked in the Olympic experience all the same.

"That was really cool. Our venue was offsite, so we stayed with the kayakers in a hotel," she said. "Once the race was over — that was the second-last day — we got to go to Canada House for a little celebration that they do for each sport when they finish their events. We moved into the (Athletes') Village after that and got to go to the closing ceremonies.

"That's something I've been looking forward to since I set that goal as a little girl, so that was pretty cool to walk into the stadium — being one of those athletes waving to the crowd like you watch on TV. That was pretty surreal."

Explaining that only her parents and a couple close friends knew about her condition, Sweetland reasoned that finally pinpointing what was bothering her didn't mean she was more ill or less able to compete than she'd been for the previous two years pushing hard to qualify. Sickness or none, she wasn't prepared to give up on her dream.

"If they had known, there was no way I would have raced," she said.

Sweetland explained her doctor had suspected Lyme was the culprit for many months leading up to the official confirmation. Once she received the diagnosis, there wasn't a lot Sweetland could do, noting she had already been prescribed the appropriate antibiotic.

"They tried doubling my dose, but that made me too tired, so I went back to a half-dose. We really didn't change anything, but looking back now, it's funny, because the half-dose was just enough to annoy the infections without killing them. Killing them makes me tired, but not being on them (the medication) makes me tired. We accidentally were on this perfect balance for making me feel good for training, not for making me a healthy person," she said with a chuckle. "Now I'm trying to get healthy. It's amazing, without that doxy (doxycycline), I can barely walk around the block."

Sweetland was speaking from Vancouver, where she is spending the week exploring more intensive treatment options. She anticipates being able to get much of her treatment here in Whistler and stay close to home, however.

While she hopes to resume her athletic career in one field or another someday, she said her focus has to be elsewhere for the time being.

"My doctors had a real conversation with me last week that right now, I just need to not be an athlete and not be pushing myself anymore. My sole focus has to be this," she said. "I was hoping to get on my mountain bike and I was talking with the cross-country mountain-bike coach heading home from Rio thinking 'Hmm...maybe I could get into one sport and I really love mountain biking.'

"I do have ambitions of continuing in high-performance sport, for sure."

Just over a week removed from swimming, cycling and running in South America and her full disclosure regarding her health, Sweetland said she's received plenty of support and praise from those around her. She still can't help but feel disappointment, even though she feels she did her best given the situation.

"All my friends and doctors keep telling me I'm being too hard on myself. If it were someone else, I'd think that it was pretty amazing but you're always harder on yourself, I guess," she said. "I was in California in December initially thinking I wasn't even going to be there, so I have to be proud of what I did accomplish.

"My body really wasn't working for me on the day of the race and I willed it to the line, so I'm proud of that."

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