Summer Sanders: The Olympic Champion Carries the Torch for Varicose Vein AwarenessAugust 2013
By Jon Finkel
Twenty years ago, in the pristine water of the Bernat Picornell Olympic swimming pool on the mountain of Montjuic, in Barcelona, Spain, the world fell in love with Summer Sanders. It was the 1992 Olympic Games, and as the NBA’s Dream Team dominated the headlines on land, Sanders’ grit and grace stole headlines in the water.
Fresh off winning an NCAA National Championship with her Stanford University swim team, Sanders won four medals at the 1992 games, including a gold medal in the 200 meter butterfly and the 4 x 100 meter relay. As the most decorated US swimmer of the Barcelona games, almost overnight, she found herself the focus of the national media. Fortunately, she was ready for prime time.
She used her swimming success as a launch pad to a television career that included an eight-year run as co-host of NBA Inside Stuff with Ahmad Rashad, as well as work as a correspondent for Good Morning America, The Rachael Ray Show, and NBC’s Olympic coverage.
Long retired from competitive swimming, Sanders currently hosts the award-winning web series “Elite Athlete Workout for Yahoo! Sports.” More importantly, however, is the work that she’s doing as a health and fitness advocate, which includes her latest partnership with Rethink Varicose Veins.
Nobody Is Immune
Sanders’ partnership with Rethink Varicose Veins isn’t one of those collaborations where a celebrity becomes a hired gun and has no knowledge of the actual cause. In this case, varicose veins were a serious problem for Sanders.
“I was pregnant with my son when I had my first varicose vein,” Sanders says. “I had always associated varicose veins with someone older than me, or someone who wasn’t active, so when I got mine, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve turned into my mother.’”
Following her initial reaction, Sanders did some research and discovered what many women in her shoes have come to understand about what they once thought was a mere ‘cosmetic’ problem. The basics were that varicose veins happen when the valves in the leg no longer function, causing blood to pool. While many women are first concerned about the unsightly appearance, a true health risk lurks beneath the surface.
If varicose veins are untreated, they can lead to much more serious forms of venous disease called CVI, which stands for Chronic Venous Insufficiency. CVI can snowball into a host of symptoms that can progress over time, including leg fatigue, swelling, restlessness, pain, and in the worst cases, ulcers, skin damage, and an increase in the risk of developing a blood clot called a deep venous thrombosis (DVT). This blood clot can form in the deep veins of the leg and then travel to other parts of the body, including the lungs, resulting in a potentially fatal condition called pulmonary embolism (PE).
“Once I started to learn more about it, I realized that the constant pain I was having in my legs might be CVI,” she says. “My tipping point was when I was on my way home from Disneyland with my family and I was driving. We had to stop three times because my calves were so sore. It was just an annoying, annoying ache. You can’t help but massage it. When I started to think about it, I realized I was experiencing this kind of pain almost every night.”
As a world class athlete, Sanders was conditioned to push through pain, but after reading the literature, she realized this wasn’t something you just tough out.
“My mother suffered from varicose veins for most of her life,” Sanders says. “She was a flight attendant and was on her feet all the time. She always talked about how much pain she’d be in on long trips. Well, I developed varicose veins 25 years before my mom had hers.”
In fact, when Sanders’ mother went to have her legs examined by a specialist, that’s when Sanders decided to have her legs looked at as well.
“I had myself checked out, and as I was reading the literature, I became more knowledgeable and I started calculating how I felt after long days on my feet and after long flights and I thought my varicose veins might be causing some of my symptoms,” she says.
“When Rethink Varicose Veins contacted me to get involved, I thought someone was messing with me because my mom was having a laser procedure the next day!” she says.
Having a Game Plan
As far as Sanders’ own varicose vein issue, she was determined to nip it in the bud.
“There is a new way to look at varicose veins,” she says. “Don’t wait until your leg is full of varicose veins to have them checked out.
Sanders opted for Radiofrequency Ablation, which uses radiofrequency energy to force the vein walls to collapse and seal off.
“In layman’s terms, I had a vein that wasn’t working, so I just shut it off,” she explains.
Other minimally invasive treatments include laser ablation, which uses a focused laser to close off a diseased vein, and sclerotherapy, which involves a chemical injection into a diseased vein.
Natural solutions may include the plant-based nutrient diosmin, which is derived from the sweet orange. This extract is delivered rapidly to the blood stream via a vegetarian tablet and may help maintain healthy blood flow as well as vascular tone and elasticity.
Following her procedure, Sanders says she feels 100%, and after successfully running in this past year’s Chicago Marathon, she hopes to qualify for and run in the prestigious Boston Marathon next year.
“I don’t have any other kinds of veins or an achy feeling anymore,” she says. “My calf feels so much lighter on a daily basis. This is why I think it’s important to be the face of varicose veins. I wanted to show that you can be an active, healthy person.”
In terms of prevention and/or reducing some symptoms, Sanders says that, of all things, her doctor suggested swimming as a fantastic exercise to combat varicose veins.
“My doctor was telling me that swimming is a great exercise to help alleviate varicose veins,” she says. “Exercise is great, but it is hard on your veins. With swimming, you’re not upright and it’s easier on your body.”
Diet, as always, plays a pivotal role in overall health, and when it comes to what Sanders puts in her body, she tries to stick with fruits, vegetables, and protein.
“In our house, we try to look at our plates like they’re an empty canvas and we try to put as much color on them as possible,” she says. “We load it up with reds and greens and oranges and as many fresh vegetables as we can. I also love blueberries. You can add them to anything. They’re chock full of antioxidants, like nature’s little miracle food.”
Sanders also makes fruit smoothies for her and her kids and includes frozen spinach for its high content of vitamins A, K, C, and folate.
“I put it in shakes and you don’t even taste it,” she says.
With her healthy diet in place and her legs no longer bothering her, Sanders celebrated the 20th anniversary of her success at the Barcelona Games with a special honor at the 2012 Olympic Games in London: she represented the United States and carried the Olympic torch through London.
“I was beyond excited when I found out,” she says. “I was chosen by Coca-Cola as one of the athletes and I think I just screamed when I heard the news.”
Last summer, Sanders not only carried the torch for the US, but for all the women who now have the knowledge to overcome varicose veins.
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