A lot of people will be taking notice of Spencer O’ Brien when she competes in the 23rd Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, including some who may not know much about snowboarding. For apart from her athletic talents, she is both a role model and an inspiration.
O’Brien, who will turn 30 on February 2, grew up in Alert Bay, a small village on Cormorant Island in British Columbia. She has an aboriginal background; she is a member of the Haida Kwakwakw’wakw First Nation.
“It’s just a beautiful culture to be a part of,” she says, “and I feel lucky to come from a family that embraces it and is doing their part to carry on the traditions that come along with it. I hope to do the same with my children when the time comes.”
O’Brien was on skis by age 3; she started snowboarding at 11. “Spending time in the mountains has been a part of my life since before I could walk,” she says. “My parents were avid skiers and taught me at age 3. When I was 11, I chose to follow in my older sister’s footsteps and try out snowboarding. It was always just what we did as a family on the weekends.”
O’Brien first started competing when she accompanied her older sister Meghann to events. “My dad gave so much of his time taking us to events all over British Columbia,” she says. They were and still are my biggest supporters.”
By 2007, O’Brien was competing at the Winter X Games. The following year she claimed her first medal, a bronze in Slopestyle. She took a silver medal the following year.
That set the stage for a three-year period that she won the overall championship of the World Snowboard Tour (2012), claimed a gold medal in Slopestyle at the FIS Snowboarding World Championships (2013) and two more bronze medals at the X Games (2013-14).
All this was a buildup to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. But O’ Brien’s body was betraying her. “I went through several months of pain while riding and training,” she recalls, “and just attributed it to getting older and doing an action sport for so long. The pain continued to worsen and I had many more months of trying to rehab various joint injuries to no avail the doctors realized there was something else going on.”
That something else was rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation of joints and can also affect internal organs.
O’Brien was diagnosed just four months before the Olympics and tried to ignore it at first. “It was so close to the Games that I just took the medication and put the blinders on,” she says. “I had to pretend like it wasn’t a part of my life at that point because I didn’t have time to process it.”
O’Brien wound up finishing last in Sochi but she rebounded to win gold at the 2016 X Games and silver at the FIS World Cup the following year, thanks in part to modifying her treatment regimen.
“Finding the right medication was like a whole new world opened up, after months of constant pain,” she says. “it’s the most insane feeling to have relief from it. The morning I woke up and could get out of bed without major pain was such a milestone for me.”
O’Brien still trains as she always has, although she has cut down on lifting to ease the stress on her joints. She is savoring the approach of her second Olympics.
“I’m trying to stay focused on the journey and the small things,” she says. “They are fast approaching so I think making big major changes at this point wouldn’t do anything but add stress. I’m trying to stay true to my path and the plan I’ve set out for myself.”
Whatever path O’Brien chooses and wherever that road leads, she is committed to honoring her forebears “Being first nations is a large part of who I am and the older I get the more interested I am in learning more about my heritage. It’s a privilege and an honor to be considered a role model for native youth and I just hope that my journey affects some of them in a positive way.”
O’Brien is also a role model for the millions worldwide who suffer from rheumatoid arthritis. Her accomplishments as an athlete offer hope to the millions who are dealing with the disease.
“I just hope that my story can help people see the light at the end of the tunnel,” she says. “I was in a very dark place before my diagnosis and it was frightening to think that all the things I loved to do with my body would be taken away from me. Returning to the snow and training brought so much joy back to my life and finding a medication regime that worked for me and my symptoms was truly a gift.
“I know that many people struggle to find the right medication for them and my best advice is to be your own advocate and push your doctors to continue to try other methods if your current one isn’t working. There is a way to come back to the sports and activities you love and I hope that I show people that it’s possible. “
Cover Photo credit: Peter Morning / ESPN Images