This is how the gold medalist learned her pool rash was actually an autoimmune disorder—and exactly what she did to feel confident again.

2012 Getty Images
| Credit: Getty Images

How much do you actually know about psoriasis? I had never even heard of it, that is, until I got my diagnosis in the midst of gearing up for my third Olympic games.

I still remember it so clearly. It was the early '90s [before the 1992 Barcelona games] and I was at the pool, training just like any other night. But when I finished my workout and got out of the water, I felt like something was off. I suddenly noticed red, flaky patches on my elbow. I headed to the locker room and looked at my discolored elbow in the mirror. “What is that?" I thought. "Why am I itching?”

I figured it was just a rash, so I brushed it off and tried not to think about it. But the red flaky patches kept coming back. I started noticing some pretty clear triggers—like stress and chlorine. In fact, the more I was in chlorine, the more red the patches became. But I was in the middle of training. It's not like I could stay out of the pool.

Then the patches started cropping up other places, like my back and even my shins. And to make matters worse, I got into the habit of scratching them, and as I did they kept getting redder and redder. I knew I needed to figure out what was going on.

“Could you spell that for me?” I asked my doctor after he told me I had psoriasis. I had no idea what it was. No one really talked about psoriasis in the early '90s. What I learned is that psoriasis is a chronic, relapsing condition in which skin cells multiply at a rapid and abnormal rate. Doctors still don’t the exact cause of the disease, which affects as many as 7.5 million Americans, but most believe it's autoimmune, since the body attacks its own skin cells.

After the doctor explained what I had, I said, “Oh okay so it will go away, no big deal.” But then he told me psoriasis doesn’t have a cure—I could manage symptoms by reducing my stress and sticking to a healthy diet and weight, but I’d still have to deal with it for the rest of my life.

At first, I was horribly embarrassed by my symptoms, especially since I couldn’t really hide them. After all, my work suit is my swimsuit! My body is completely exposed, except for whatever that little piece of clothing covers. And since the chlorine made my patches worse, I felt especially self-conscious whenever I had to jump in the pool—which was pretty much every day.

Like many people who deal with psoriasis, I found that the condition really started to take a toll on me emotionally. My biggest fear was that people would look at me and think if they came close to me or touched me they would catch it. Every time I dove in the water, I’d see the other swimmers stare at me and I'd think they must be scared they would get the flaky patches too. Maybe it was all in my head, but back then no one really knew what psoriasis was, so there was this stigma surrounding it. People mistakenly thought the condition might be contagious—as if it were poison ivy or chicken pox. And sadly, that stigma still hasn’t totally gone away.

But despite my insecurities, eventually I realized: Who cares if I have these flaky patches on my skin? It doesn’t define who I am and I don’t want it to hold me back from showing my true self or pursuing my dreams. Whether my goal is competing in the Olympics or just being a good mom, I finally realized I can’t achieve anything if I sit around and think: I’m not going out because I have psoriasis on my elbows or back.

As soon as I made that decision to stop caring, my whole life changed, and I started to feel like myself again. I’m the kind of person who doesn’t shy away from challenges; psoriasis is just another challenge in my life. So instead of dwelling on self-consciousness, I shifted my energy towards figuring out a way to manage my symptoms. Since I couldn’t exactly stay away from chlorine, I tried to combat other factors that affected my psoriasis. For example, because stress is a major trigger of my patches, to this day, whenever I feel my stress levels rise, I try to exercise more, take deep breaths, and do anything possible to stay relaxed.

I decided I wanted to use my story and my position in the public eye to help other people. I started working with the Show More of You campaign, which is trying to raise awareness about the condition. People can post pictures and inspirational messages, plus tell stories about what they’ve been through. Each of these stories shows the condition doesn’t need to take over someone's life. There’s also a ton of useful info on the site, meant to help educate the public on the condition and help de-stigmatize it once and for all.

Since I ultimately couldn’t control when or where the pesky patches would arise, I also had to learn to just be comfortable in my own skin, and not let fear of embarrassment take over my life. It definitely wasn’t easy, but overcoming the challenges of living with the condition has made me stronger.