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Biathlete battles back from celiac disease

Now that she knows why she was feeling chronic fatigue, not responding to the intense workouts of a world-calibre biathlete, Emily Dickson's torment has begun to fade from memory.
Now that she has discovered it was celiac disease that was slowing her down, Burns Lake biathlete Emily Dickson has returned to the international racing scene, where she hopes to make a dent in the competition next season as a first-year senior on the IBU Cup tour. – Handout photo

Now that she knows why she was feeling chronic fatigue, not responding to the intense workouts of a world-calibre biathlete, Emily Dickson's torment has begun to fade from memory.

Diagnosed with celiac disease in September 2016, it's taken Dickson that long to rid her body of all traces of gluten, the demon inside that was robbing her of her strength and endurance and the cause of her mental anguish as she fell from her perch as one of Canada's most promising young biathletes.

"It has been a tough year and it kind of sucks because it's been a few bad seasons, one on top of the other," said the 20-year-old native of Burns Lake. "It was a lot of fatigue, I just felt tired in training all the time and I wasn't responding to my training and I wasn't recovering well and I had a few things going on, but nothing that pointed to celiac.

"Once we figured out it was celiac and we looked at all the symptoms it all made sense. Even though, my body has still not recovered and that makes it tough to be out there racing, giving it everything I have knowing I'm still not where I need to be. But every day I'm getting better and that was evident in my last tour. It will still be another few months before I'm fully healthy again."

Prompted by her older sister Kate's positive test for celiac, a hereditary affliction, Dickson was tested shortly after and that provided her revelation.

"I've always carried the gene but they say sometimes it doesn't kick in until your teens and I kind of pinpointed it back to when I really started taking the training to the next level when I moved to Prince George," Dickson said. "Even in 2015, there were signs of it, that I was feeling quite tired. Canada Games was awesome but I remember getting to nationals feeling totally drained and I had no idea why. I'm feeling so much more energetic now."

After finishing 10th overall at the national team trials in January, Dickson returned to the international scene on the Junior IBU Cup tour. She raced in Slovenia and the Czech Republic and went through a camp in Norway. She then went to Otepaa, Estonia, for the world junior championships and posted three respectable results - 26th in the pursuit, 36th in the sprint and 36th in the individual race - solid reassurance she's well on her way to regaining the form which made her a medal standout at the 2015 Canada Winter Games in Prince George.

"The pursuit is typically my favourite race and I was excited I did well in that again," said Dickson, from her home in Canmore, Alta., where she's preparing for the Canadian biathlon championships next week in Charlo, N.B.

"I was really relaxed and having a good time and moved up 10 spots and I had a really solid race. My shooting accuracy could have been better - I don't think it was doing my skills justice - but my shooting speed was right up there and something I'm really proud of, it's something I've been working a lot at the past few years since I've fallen a little bit behind in skiing."

Two weeks ago, Dickson and her coach in Canmore, Kathy Davies, each received a $5,000 prize after being selected for the Petro Canada/Canadian Olympic Committee's Fueling Athletes and Coaching Excellence (FACE) program grant. Dickson said the cash award will come in handy. All of it will be spent next season on team fees and travel in Europe.

Davies, who took on the role as interim head coach of the Biathlon Alberta Training Centre team when head coach Richard Boruta died last April in a climbing accident, has worked with Dickson ever since she moved to Canmore from Prince George in the summer of 2015.

"Emily is a very solid shooter and a good athlete and I was very happy she was able to put some good races together," said Davies. "It's a tough field at the world youth/juniors. I was very proud of her that she could pull off those results because her body has been battling the training load and trying to deal with celiac and I don't think it's still come to a stable point. She's not quite at her best and I was really happy she was able to ski as well as she did."

Celiac disease is an allergic immune response to gluten grains - wheat, barley and rye - and when triggered it attacks the small intestine, which prevents the absorption of some nutrients, resulting in fatigue, weight loss, anemia, bloating and diarrhea. Other symptoms include abdominal pain, nausea, constipation and vomiting.

Davies said the fact Dickson is a high-level athlete used to pushing herself so hard in an aerobic sport which taxes the physical limits of her body has added to the time it's taken to return to a normal state, but it's not for a lack of trying. Dickson's dedication to becoming a better athlete 24 hours a day and her attention to detail shows in her marksmanship and speed on the range and Davies predicts her ski times will continue to fall as her body rids itself totally of gluten.

"She's asking her body to do a lot from the demands of training and that's taking longer than if you were a lay person not doing so much activity," said Davies. "She's really pushed through this and I'm really happy to see she's turned the corner. She been such a fighter because she's used to being able to put the gas pedal down and have the body respond and go crazy because she had such good results as a younger athlete."

While training as a member of the Caledonia Nordic Ski Club in Prince George three years ago, Dickson dominated her age peers nationally and won Canada Games gold in the pursuit and team relay. She also won silver in the sprint and bronze in the individual race.

Dickson turns 21 in May, which means next season she will be competing internationally in the open categories. It's a big jump to the senior ranks but Dickson appears on track to be a regular next season on the IBU Cup tour.

She says she feels no pressure to perform at next week's nationals and is considering it a fun event she will use as a gauge to see where she stacks up against the best in Canada. Her last week as a junior racer starts with a sprint race on Wednesday.

"Obviously it's quite competitive and the top contenders will be there in my category," said Dickson. "All of our distances are the same as the senior categories and they typically run right after each other so I'll be able to compare my results directly to the senior national team."

She plans to return to Burns Lake and Prince George for the month of April, then will resume training in Canmore.