Spencer O’Brien feels like her normal gnarly self on her snowboard. There was a time when she felt anything but that.
Diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis just weeks before the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, the 28-year-old from Courtenay, B.C., feels comfortable talking about the disease now because she has it under control.
“Once I was healthy again, looking back, it was kind of mind-blowing,” O’Brien told The Canadian Press on Wednesday from Aspen, Colo.
“I was so grateful to be healthy again and be snowboarding.”
O’Brien will try to defend her X Games slopestyle gold Saturday in Aspen, but she’ll compete first in the return of women’s Big Air to the extreme sport festival Thursday.
Snowboard Big Air will be on the Winter Olympic program for the first time next year in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
O’Brien was considered an Olympic medal contender in women’s slopestyle heading into Sochi because she was the reigning world champion.
But stiffness that morphed into swollen joints kept her off snow for seven months in 2013.
“I started to get joint injuries where my joint capsules would swell up and cause a ton of irritation,” O’Brien recalled. “I wouldn’t be able to lift my arms above my head.
“It got so bad that I couldn’t even get myself out of bed in the morning or walk down a set of stairs. I literally looked like an 80-year-old woman.”
On Nov. 25, 2013, she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis — a chronic autoimmune disorder in which the immune system attacks one’s own body tissues. According to the Mayo Clinic, the swelling can cause bone erosion and joint deformity.
“There was a lot of fear I wouldn’t be able to compete at the Games because no one knew what was wrong with me,” O’Brien said.
“When I did find out, it was such a whirlwind and it was so personal, I wasn’t ready to talk about it. I didn’t want to broadcast it because I was still trying to understand it. I didn’t process it until that season was over.”
O’Brien botched landings halfway down the course in each of her two runs in the Olympic women’s final in Sochi and finished last in the 12-woman field.
O’Brien won’t blame her performance on rheumatoid arthritis because she was on medication by that point and had placed third in the X Games prior to departing for Sochi.
But her Olympic preparation that winter was far from optimal.
“It was kind of weird after everything I’d been through to make it to finals and then just kind of have an off-day,” she said.
After trying different medications, O’Brien found one two years ago that controls her symptoms. She shakes her head when she thinks about how much pain she endured in 2013 compared to now.
O’Brien won her first X Games gold last year in her 10th appearance. She’s thrilled that women’s Big Air is back on the program after a long absence.
Big Air is an amplified version of slopestyle where boarders launch off fewer, but bigger, jumps for more height and distance.
“All the girls invited to this event will be major, major contenders in Korea next year,” O’Brien said. “It’s going to be very telling of who is on the cusp for those Olympic medals come next February.”
World and Olympic gold are impressive to the general public, but within the extreme-sport community, an X Games gold ranks just as high.
“X Games has been the pinnacle of action sports for such a long time, before any of these sports were ever Olympic disciplines,” O’Brien said. “It just has a very strong hold on this community.”
Regina snowboarder Mark McMorris, the defending men’s slopestyle champion, has described the event as his “Super Bowl.”
McMorris joins a deep group of Canadians in men’s snowboard including defending Big Air champion Max Parrot of Bromont, Que., Sebastien Toutant of L’Assomption, Que., and Tyler Nicholson of North Bay, Ont.
The country’s freestyle contingent is led by eight-time women’s slopestyle champion Kaya Turski of Montreal and Edmonton’s Mike Riddle, an Olympic silver medallist in halfpipe.