How Paralympic Gold Medalist Allysa Seely Is Overcoming Chronic Illness

Allysa Seely

Key Takeaways

  • Despite multiple chronic illnesses, this athlete finds ways to focus on her physical and mental health.
  • Identifying migraines in their beginning stages and adjusting her stress management can often help reduce symptoms.
  • Seely believes that you don’t need to scuttle your goals when you have a chronic condition, you just need to learn the best ways to pivot.

For 32-year-old paratriathlete and gold medalist Allysa Seely, training to set records is far from the only challenge she takes on regularly. In addition to managing several chronic illnesses, she experiences migraines often—sometimes having up to 25 migraine days in a month.

“Since this has been happening for years, I’ve learned how to prepare for those symptoms and what helps with prevention,” she says. “Focusing on my health in meaningful ways can make a difference, not just for migraines but for simply enjoying my life and chasing my goals.”

Verywell Fit sat down with Allysa to learn more about how she thrives in her life and her sport, despite the daily health challenges she faces.

Managing Chronic Illness

In 2008, Seely raced her first triathlon to raise money for cancer research, an experience she found so empowering that she joined the Arizona State University triathlon team. Two years later, she was diagnosed with Chiari II malformation, basilar invagination, and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. Together, these conditions affected her connective tissues, brain, and spine.

Despite the considerable changes in mobility these conditions cause, Seely continued to compete. In fact, she was in a collegiate triathlon championship only seven weeks after her first surgery.

Allysa Seely

Focusing on my health in meaningful ways can make a difference, not just for migraines but for simply enjoying my life and chasing my goals.

— Allysa Seely

She decided to become a paratriathlete in 2012, and soon after, complications from her conditions led to the amputation of her left leg. Adjusting her training to wearing a prosthetic, she continued to dominate competitions with back-to-back world championship titles in 2015 and 2016, and then a gold medal at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.

The migraines began around the same time that she started experiencing early signs of her conditions. She’d struggle to run or even walk without feeling the headache building, followed by tingling in her arms and legs, and just before her diagnosis, Seely started having seizures as well.

“As all this was happening, I had the choice to dial back on being active, and have that help with symptoms, but that didn’t feel like a real option to me,” she says. “Moving and being physical was part of my mental health and what makes life fun. So, I learned to adjust.”

Benefits of Exercise

For Seely, exercise is an essential part of her physical and mental wellness, and also a way to stay focused on her athletic goals.

Early in her diagnosis, she was told she could likely retain her leg and foot if she chose a much more sedentary life. But that seemed like a terrible option for her. Being an athlete was part of her identity, but more than that, it gave her a sense of purpose and momentum.

Allysa Seely

The reason I’m able to live such a fulfilling life is that I’m active.

— Allysa Seely

She believes people don’t need to face a choice like that, or to identify as an athlete, to see similar benefits.

“The reason I’m able to live such a fulfilling life is that I’m active,” she says. “You don’t need to be an elite athlete to see the advantages of that. For me, it’s helped physically to put on muscle mass, have better blood flow, and work on cardiovascular strength. It helps me stay mentally sharp and focused, and to manage my chronic conditions.”

Importance of Small Changes

A strategy that Seely does not employ is to power through the pain, or to ignore her symptoms. Particularly in the midst of a migraine, that’s counterproductive, she believes. Instead, she’s experimented over the years with small shifts that can help minimize a migraine’s impact. For her, what helps is:

  • Keeping a regular bedtime and wake time schedule
  • Limiting caffeine
  • Using migraine-specific medication
  • Keeping large blocks of her schedule free instead of always staying busy
  • Aromatherapy while preparing for bed
  • Liberal use of the word “no” to obligations that will overload her calendar
  • Changing training for the day to focus on form or flexibility rather than intensity

What This Means For You

“The biggest thing I want people to know is there are so many things you can still do if you get migraines, even if they’re almost daily,” she says. “There doesn’t need to be a choice between your health and your goals. You can have both, you can pursue your dreams. You just have to adjust in ways that support your health.”

By Elizabeth Millard
Elizabeth Millard is a freelance journalist specializing in health, wellness, fitness, and nutrition.