Elite athletes are often thought of as warriors. They’re seemingly invincible as they excel in their sports. But throughout history, many famous athletes have lived with diseases before, during, or after they made a name for themselves.
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). ALS is a progressive, degenerative, and fatal disease affecting motor neurons. Gehrig was so loved and well-known that ALS became known worldwide. The disease is now commonly referred to as “Lou Gehrig’s disease.”
One of the greatest boxers in history, Muhammad Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984. Parkinson’s is a degenerative condition that affects the central nervous system. Ali was a staunch activist for Parkinson’s research and established the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center in 1997. He died in 2016 after experiencing a respiratory illness. Respiratory illnesses can be complicated by neurological conditions like Parkinson’s. In a statement released in remembrance of the three-time world heavyweight champion, President Barack Obama said, “Muhammad Ali was the greatest. Period.”
Wilma Rudolph was dubbed the fastest woman in the world after winning three gold medals in track and field in the 1960 Olympics. This achievement is even more remarkable 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. Rudolph had also survived several other illnesses by the time she was 12. These included whooping cough, scarlet fever, and the measles.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, one of the greatest basketball players of all time, announced he had chronic myeloid leukemia in November 2009. Chronic myeloid leukemia is a slow-growing cancer of the white blood cells. The former Lakers center had been living with the disease for nearly a year before he decided to go public and become an advocate to raise awareness. He has since recovered from the cancer and the 69-year-old can still be spotted at Lakers games.
Tennis great Martina Navratilova went public with her breast cancer diagnosis in April 2010. 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 was a college basketball star for Loyola Marymount University. Gathers collapsed during a game in December 1989. He was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat and was prescribed medication. He later stopped taking it 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. This condition causes the heart muscle to thicken.
Arthur Ashe is considered one of the most influential athletes in history for both his athletic prowess and his courage in the face of adversity. Ashe was the first black player to win the U.S. and Australian 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.
Ashe announced that he had AIDS in 1992. He spoke openly about his belief that he contracted the disease as a result of a tainted blood transfusion. He used his fame to raise awareness and money for the disease and delivered a speech in front of the United Nations on World AIDS Day shortly before passing away. He died in 1993 of AIDS-related pneumonia.
Tim Howard is a goalkeeper for the U.S. national soccer team and the English soccer club Everton. Howard rose to prominence despite battling Tourette’s syndrome. This neurological disorder is characterized by involuntary movements and vocalizations called “tics.” Diagnosed at age 9, he has learned to manage his condition. He’s currently an outspoken patient-advocate for the disorder. Howard’s memoir The Keeper: A Life of Saving Goals and Achieving Them shares his experience of living with Tourette’s syndrome.
Before she became the basketball coach with the most wins 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. In August 2011, she announced that she had early-onset dementia and shortly after created The Pat Summitt Foundation with her husband. Summitt retired on April 18, 2012. Her memoir “Sum It Up,” published in 2013, details her struggles with memory loss. She passed away in June 2016.
Tennis star Venus Williams announced in 2011 that she has Sjogren’s syndrome. Sjogren’s syndrome is an autoimmune disorder. The main symptoms are fatigue and joint pain, which caused Williams to withdraw from the 2011 U.S. Open.
Since then she has returned to tennis with a new diet and modified training program. Williams believes a vegan and raw foods diet helps reduce inflammation associated with Sjogren’s. Her training now allows for one or more rest days to let her body recover.
Pro golfer and winner of three Masters championships, Phil Mickelson thought his career was over when he began experiencing severe joint pain in 2010. He was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis, a type of autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system attacks the joints. Symptoms of psoriatic arthritis include joint pain and swelling along with psoriasis, a condition that causes red, itchy, scaly patches to form on the skin. Now with regular treatment to help manage his condition, Mickelson is able to compete at the elite level in the sport he loves.
Isaiah Austin, a former Baylor University basketball star and NBA hopeful, announced that he was diagnosed with Marfan’s syndrome in June 2014. Marfan’s syndrome is a genetic disorder that affects the body’s connective tissues. Connective tissue holds together cells, organs, and blood vessels. The diagnosis ended his basketball career due to enlarged arteries in his heart. Austin established the Isaiah Austin Foundation in 2014 to support research of Marfan’s.
Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry announced he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease in December 2014. Hodgkin’s disease is a cancer of the lymphatic system. The cancer typically responds well to treatment. Berry began chemotherapy with the support of his team and fans shortly after he was diagnosed. After only nine months he made a full recovery and was cleared to return to the field. In 2015 he had a record year and was voted into the Pro Bowl for the fourth time in his career.