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To put it bluntly, Lee-Ann Watanabe has been through a lot of shit.
Shortly after taking up triathlon in 2004, the Honolulu, Hawaii resident found she was constantly experiencing gastrointestinal distress. “Sometimes racing required quite a few potty breaks, and sometimes, I never made it to the bathroom,” Watanabe said. “Many times, I dealt with cramping and bloody stool during races.”
But what Watanabe was experiencing wasn’t race-related; it was ulcerative colitis (UC), an inflammatory bowel disease that causes inflammation and ulcers in the digestive tract. Instead of respecting her doctor’s initial diagnosis, however, she opted to ignore it and push through. “I thought I could out-race the disease. I vowed to myself that I wouldn’t let UC interfere with my newfound passion for triathlon,” she said. “Once I took all the meds and I felt ‘healed,’ I never returned to the doctor’s office.”
Her symptoms returned, yet Watanabe’s denial continued. She didn’t want to admit she had something that most people thought of as gross and taboo. Instead, she quietly suffered through her symptoms, which were progressively getting worse. Over the years, cramping and frequent bathroom trips progressed to barely being able to make it through the day. Even a sip of water would trigger a bowel movement. The physical effort of training and racing would trigger symptoms, too. She battled constant fatigue and poor recovery. When major flares happened, she would head to the doctor, where she would receive high doses of steroids and potent pain medication. Finally, she realized enough was enough.
“It took me over two decades to realize that I really needed to take a step back and listen to my body,” Watanabe said. “I had to respect my diagnosis and realize there would be some things I would need to do differently.”
Her healing journey began with a trip to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, where the doctors recommended ostomy surgery to create an opening in the abdomen for bodily waste to pass into a prosthetic known as a “pouch.” The procedure is a last-resort option, when damage from UC is extreme, and Watanabe certainly fit the bill.
“I realized then that my body was telling me to wake up and pay attention. In racing, especially in the longer distance triathlons, you get so used to tuning out the pain and having a laser-like focus that keeps you pushing forward no matter how broken your body is. That gets you to the finish. This time, my finish line was ostomy surgery. And I was ready.”
After having the procedure in 2015, Watanabe had to find a new way of racing. Gone were the days when she would push through anything and everything; now she had to learn to honor her body and listen to its cues. There was also the matter of her pouch. “Racing with this medical appliance was tricky at first because I was still new to the process, the fitting of the pouch, what ostomy pouches work best for my body, my skin, and the Hawaii humidity,” Watanabe said. In her first race back—a half-iron distance a half-year after surgery—she cried tears of frustration throughout the course. But when she crossed the finish line, she remembered why she wanted to do the race so badly.
“That was a huge moment for me,” she said. “It was both hard and gratifying. It was both terrible and wonderful. I have died and been reborn on many a triathlon course. And this time, it was a total transformation.”
Watanabe now trains with a profound respect for her body. The ostomy, coupled with a holistic approach to managing the triggers of UC (such as stress), has eliminated her symptoms. “Before, it was about going hard all the time, no matter what,” Watanabe said. “Now, it’s asking what does my body say today?”
Today, racing is a celebration of health, as well as a way to show others that health comes in all forms. “I made a vow to myself that I wouldn’t waste this opportunity to start the conversation,” she said. “I spent too long not taking diagnosis seriously. I truly believed that I was bigger than UC, that with hard work and dedication I could will it away.”
This didn’t come naturally at first, Watnabe confessed: “It was all very embarrassing to talk about at first. Most people don’t speak about it because of the stigma and shame attached to this—talking about poop, messing your pants, not making it to the bathroom in time. But then I realized I want to start the conversation. If I talk about it more, I normalize it. It is my truth, and despite always being fit and active, this shitty thing—pun intended—happened to me. I had been sick for so long that I forgot what healthy felt like. My ostomy gave me my life back. It wasn’t the end. It was a new beginning.”