Famous Athletes Who Battled Disease
Even elite athletes can develop rare and dangerous 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 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.”
Muhammad Ali, in a photo taken in 1967.
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.
Wilma Rudolph crossing the finish line, winning the 50 yard dash at a track meet in Madison Square Garden in 1961.
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.
Kareem Abdul Jabbar playing college ball in 1967.
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.
Martina Navratilova at the ECM Prague Open 2006, photo courtesy of www.pragueopen.cz (CC BY-SA 3.0).
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.
Hank Gathers at the Sportscasters Camps of America in 1990, photo courtesy of PhillyPartTwo (CC BY-SA 3.0)
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.
Arthur Ashe, in a 1970s advertisement for Rolex watches.
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.
Tim Howard makes a save during training, photo courtesy of Jarrett Campbell (CC BY 2.0).
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.
Pat Summitt coaching the Tennessee Volunteers in a 2008 game, photo courtesy of aaronisnotcool (CC BY 2.0).
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.
Venus Williams playing in the 2009 US Open, photo courtesy of Edwin Martinez (CC BY 2.0).
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.