Kenzie Brouk: Using My Chronic Illness As Inspiration

My name is Kenzie Brouk and I’m currently a senior at Trine University in Angola, Indiana, where I compete on the figure skating and synchronized skating team. Here is my story of finding my love for skating again through a chronic illness and a toxic team environment:

I started skating when I was seven years old and absolutely fell in love with the ice. Fifteen years later and I can still say that skating is my greatest passion, though it always wasn’t sunshine and rainbows. My story is complicated and chaotic, but as I reflect on it now, I wouldn’t be the person or athlete I am today without the struggles that have shaped me.

Approaching my senior year of college, I transferred schools, lost my love for skating, found it again, battled an eating disorder, got diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, lost both my grandfather and father to cancer, and struggled with my mental health more than I ever had before.

I made the decision to transfer to Trine University in April of 2019, because of the toxic training environment at my old college. It was an environment where athletes weren’t fully supported in taking care of their mental health. It felt like we were robots, just there to win medals and titles, but it drained my joy of skating, so I knew I had to save myself and find a way to reclaim the love I had for the sport.

I once thought that my worth was dependent on my coach’s view of me. This led me to be so afraid to make mistakes that I developed a perfectionist mindset. I began to experience immense anxiety even just walking into the rink to approach a training session. In March of 2019, I had one of the worst skates of my career, probably because for two years straight I was drilled to not make mistakes, to win medals, to earn points, and to not fail. It absolutely broke me.

I was just another skater my coach had on her roster, and if I wasn’t going to earn points or medals then there was someone else waiting to do so. It didn’t matter what I was going through personally, or how I had been struggling mentally, because athletes are supposed to toughen up, right? Wrong.

Mental Health in college athletes is not focused on enough. I made the decision to leave a successful program and started advocating for the change in the sport because athletes only get a few years to make a collegiate career. I felt that my time as a college athlete should be spent in a positive environment where I could grow and be challenged. Deciding to transfer and step away from an environment that did not support me helped me realize that I am worthy, enough, and capable beyond my wildest dreams. My coach at Trine, Rachel Franchock has created a team environment that is centered around love, which has helped me tremendously to reframe my mindset to become more growth-oriented. Transferring was one of the best decisions I have ever made for myself.

But, my story didn’t end with transferring. As someone who just wanted to catch a break after transferring, my life continued to unravel in ways I could have never imagined.

In December of 2019, I took a hard fall on the ice during one of my training sessions, and just shook it off like any other normal fall. As weeks went by, the pain just continued to get worse, and as I arrived back to my college campus in the spring, I was pushing through unbearable pain. I saw my athletic trainer and our team doctor. They classified it as typical SI joint pain and that I just had poor posture. I went through physical therapy and kept myself off the ice, though the pain didn’t get better.

I underwent my first SI joint injection in March of 2020, after having no relief from resting or physical therapy. The injection helped for about a month, and this was all during the pandemic, so I was off the ice anyway since all rinks were closed. Once I came home and was quarantined, all I could do was sit and reflect. I forgot to mention that I lost my grandfather to pancreatic cancer in February, so I was at rock bottom at this point. During the summer of 2020, I was miserable: I didn’t want to get out of bed, I didn’t want to eat, I couldn’t skate or workout without experiencing pain, and I honestly woke up and went to bed in pain every day. This is where my eating disorder peaked because I thought I had to make-up for not being able to skate or workout, so I became obsessed with counting my calories, going on walks (about the only exercise I could manage), taking laxatives, etc. Being off the ice, my body was naturally losing muscle and gaining fat.

I often found myself in bed for hours a day just so that I could avoiding eating, and in my head, the more I kept myself busy, the more I could ignore the hunger. I weighed myself every single day and depending on how much I weighed, that would determine how much I ate for that day. Food and my weight became all I thought about because I didn’t have skating.

As the school year approached again, I saw another orthopedic doctor, went through another round of physical therapy, and two more SI joint injections; this time the injections provided no relief. The last pain management doctor I saw referred me to a Rheumatologist who ordered so many blood tests I couldn’t keep count, but one specific blood test revealed that I tested positive for a rare gene protein, which is highly linked with an Autoimmune disease called Ankylosing Spondylitis. That October 27th afternoon changed my life moving forward because I was finally given a diagnosis.

After 11 months of being told that it was all in my head, that skating was causing all this pain, that I had terrible posture, and after 11 months of being in unimaginable pain, I was finally given hope.

Ankylosing Spondylitis is a rare form of arthritis that typically affects the spine. Basically, my body just attacks all the healthy tissues and triggers an abnormal amount of inflammation in my body leading to immense pain. I spent 11 months on and off the ice, in crippling pain; wondering if I would ever enjoy skating again without being in pain.

Today I can manage my symptoms through medication, and although there is no cure for AS, I have gotten my life back. Luckily for me remaining active is a huge step in stopping the progression of my disease, so I am able to continue to skate and be active, as long as it doesn’t affect my back. There will be some days that are worse than others, but for the most part, I am doing a hundred times better than I was during those 11 months.

I can see a light now, and I have chosen to be better mentally and physically. By fueling my body with the right foods and thoughts, I can be one step ahead of my disease. I never thought this could have happened to me at such a young age, but I hope to inspire other skaters and athletes to overcome challenges, no matter how impossible they might seem. I wouldn’t be the person or athlete I am today without the lessons skating has taught me both on and off the ice. I’m continuing to persevere each day and let my story and disease not define me, but inspire me to do more and be more.

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