Famous Athletes Who Battled Disease

Famous Athletes Who Battled Disease

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  • Famous Athletes With Rare Diseases

    Famous Athletes With Rare Diseases

    Elite athletes are often thought of as warriors, seemingly invincible as they succeed in their sports. But throughout history, many famous faces have battled diseases before, during, or after they made a name for themselves. Recently, Venus Williams announced she was battling a rare autoimmune disorder, reminding us all that even the most dominant of athletes are still susceptible to unexpected health issues.

    Click through the slideshow to learn about famous athletes who battled disease.

  • Lou Gehrig and ALS

    Lou Gehrig at the 1937 MLB All-Star Game in Washington, DC.

    Lou Gehrig and ALS

    The first famous athlete to go public with a major health condition, baseball great Lou Gehrig had his career cut short by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Gehrig was so loved and well-known that ALS—a progressive, degenerative, and fatal disease affecting motor neurons—became known worldwide and the disease is now commonly referred to as “Lou Gehrig’s disease.”

    Learn more about Lou Gehrig's Disease.

  • Muhammad Ali & Parkinson's Disease

    Muhammad Ali & Parkinson's Disease

    In 1984, arguably the greatest boxer in history was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative condition affecting the central nervous system. Despite his illness, Ali continues to remain as active as possible, lighting the torch at the 1996 Summer Olympics and attending President Barack Obama’s inauguration. He also has been a staunch activist for Parkinson’s research and established the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center in 1997.

    Learn more about Parkinson's disease.

  • Wilma Rudolph and Polio

    Wilma Rudolph and Polio

    Wilma Rudolph was dubbed the fastest woman in the world after winning three gold medals in track-and-field in the 1960 Olympics. Remarkable, yes. Even more so considering she was paralyzed by the poliovirus as a young child. She eventually recovered, but her left foot was slightly deformed, and she wore a brace on her leg. By the time she was 12, she had also survived several other illnesses, including whooping cough, scarlet fever, and the measles. 

    Learn more about polio.

  • Kareem Abdul Jabbar & Leukemia

    Kareem Abdul Jabbar & Leukemia

    In November, 2009, Kareem Abdul Jabbar—one of the greatest basketball players of all time—announced he had chronic myeloid leukemia, a slow-growing cancer of the white blood cells. The former Laker center had been living with the disease for nearly a year before he decided to go public and become an advocate to raise awareness. 

    Learn more about chronic myeloid leukemia.

  • Martina Navratilova & Breast Cancer

    Martina Navratilova & Breast Cancer

    In April 2010, tennis great Martina Navratilova went public with her breast cancer diagnosis. Specifically, the nine-time Wimbledon singles champion had ductal carcinoma in situ, a noninvasive form of the disease. She had the tumor surgically removed and went through six weeks of chemotherapy. Navratilova initially wanted to keep her condition quiet but decided to go public to raise awareness. 

    Learn more about breast cancer.

  • Hank Gathers and Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy

    Hank Gathers and Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy

    Hank Gathers was a college basketball star for Loyola Marymount University. In December 1989, Gathers collapsed during a game. He was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat and was prescribed medication, which he later stopped taking on game days because he thought it affected his play. On March 4, 1990, he collapsed again during a game and died just a few minutes later. An autopsy later found that he had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a condition that causes the heart muscle to thicken.

    Learn more about hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

  • Arthur Ashe and AIDS/HIV

    Arthur Ashe and AIDS/HIV

    Arthur Ashe is considered one of the most influential athletes in history. The tennis great broke the color barrier as the first black player to win the U.S. Open and Wimbledon. His career ended when he was diagnosed with heart disease in 1980. The next year he became chairman of the American Heart Association. In 1992, Ashe announced that he had AIDS and used his fame to raise awareness and money for the disease. He died in 1993 of AIDS-related pneumonia. 

    Learn more about AIDS and HIV.

  • Tim Howard & Tourette syndrome

    Tim Howard & Tourette syndrome

    Tim Howard is the goalkeeper for the national soccer team of the United States and is probably more popular worldwide for playing goalie for Manchester United in the mid 2000s. Howard rose to prominence despite battling Tourette syndrome, a neurological disorder characterized by involuntary movements and vocalizations called “tics.” Diagnosed at age 9, he has learned to manage his condition and is currently an outspoken patient-advocate for the disease.

    Learn more about Tourette syndrome.

  • Pat Summitt & Dementia

    Pat Summitt & Dementia

    Before she became the most successful basketball coach in NCAA-Division 1 history, Pat Summitt was a standout college hoops player and a member of the first medal-winning women’s Olympic basketball team. Summitt has been battling rheumatoid arthritis for years, and in August 2011, she announced that she had early-onset dementia. Summitt is determined to fight the disease and plans on coaching this season.

    Learn more about dementia.

  • Venus Williams and Sjogren’s Syndrome

    Venus Williams and Sjogren’s Syndrome

    Tennis star Venus Williams recently announced that she has Sjogren’s syndrome. It is an autoimmune disorder characterized by the degeneration of mucus-secreting glands, particularly the tear ducts and saliva glands in the mouth. The main symptoms are fatigue and joint pain, which caused Williams to withdraw from the 2011 U.S. Open.

    Learn more about Sjogren's syndrome.