Brittani Nicholl is not one to shy away from a challenge.

She’s currently in France captaining the Australian team at the 2017 World Surfing Games, even though she’s battling a life-threatening health condition.

“Surfing throws up a whole different set of challenges than other sports. It’s more than just a competition against yourself or your competitor. It’s a contest against the natural elements. You have to read tides, wind, swell and pick shifting sandbars to come out on top,” said Brittani.

For Brittani though, surfing is full of challenges that many of us couldn’t even begin to comprehend.

Brittani was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at age 7.

Crohn’s disease is Iife-long gastrointestinal disorder that commonly presents in adolescence and early adulthood. The hallmark of this disease is inflammation of the gut; the bowel becomes red, hot, swollen, tender and does not function normally.

This dysfunction can cause a range of problems that includes diarrhoea, pain, bleeding, profound fatigue, weight loss, anaemia and bowel obstruction. The disease can become so severe that hospitalisation is required and many people affected by IBD require surgery.

By 16, Brittani’s Crohn’s has become so severe that surgery was the only option. The surgery was successful, but several complications and a near death experience left her no choice but to go through further surgery, to be fitted with an ileostomy bag, allowing her bowel to rest.

The social pressures of being a 16-year old girl with a chronic medical condition and an ileostomy bag were difficult enough—trying to keep her surfing career on track was an incredible struggle, although she managed to achieve a lot and had some of her best results throughout the three years of having the ileostomy.

To do this, Brittani had to make some adjustments, “I learnt not to eat at least one to two hours leading up to going for a surf. I surfed in a one piece swimsuit and, at times, a wetsuit as well to keep everything in place on my stomach. I had a few mishaps with leakage and irritation whilst surfing with the bag but it was all worth it in the end just to be doing something I loved.”

It wasn’t long before bad news struck again. When Brittani broke her ankle in two places surfing her home break, her surgeon decided it would be a good time to have the surgery reversed and the bag removed.

“It was a daunting feeling because the bag had been the best thing for me and my health, I do not know what the outcome would have been without it. With the outcome of the reversal being unknown I was scared that things would go back to being as bad as they were before I had the original surgery in 2007 and my health would go back downhill,” Brittani said.

The reversal proved successful, and for the first time in 16 years, Brittani was in remission. However, like so many others suffering from chronic conditions, Brittani would have to accept the fact that good news may not last long.

“In 2015 I required an ileostomy bag for a second time, which ended up being the least of my worries! I spent ten months out of action and went through several different surgeries, spending the majority of her time in hospital. In the end, I had 20cm’s of my small bowel removed, and had the ileostomy reversed again after nine months,” Brittani said.

She approached 2016 with hopes of a fresh start and a clean run at her surfing, but unfortunately her Crohn’s quickly relapsed.

The most inspiring thing about Brittani’s story is her ability to remain positive no matter what, whether she’s in remission or relapse her attitude is the same.

Her passion for surfing has helped her through the darkest stages of her illness.

“Surfing for me is a release, it calms my state of mind, and it is the one place I can forget about my worries. At times when I am unable to do this, I try and incorporate different mental activities and find other ways of settling my mind and body,” Brittani said.

“Surfing has played a major role in my journey, as the ocean is my one escape, the one place where I forget about everything and wash away my worries. It really is a therapy that is so refreshing for the mind, body, and soul. This can sometimes be difficult because at times when I am unwell, I am unable to surf.”

An enormous challenge in competing stems from the fact that Brittani hasn’t been able to train consistently for years. While her competitors can ramp up their training in the lead up to events, like the ISA World Surfing Games, Brittani must be content with training as much as she possibly can.

Some weeks she can get in three sessions and other weeks, sometimes months, she can’t manage any training at all. That’s the constant battle of someone suffering from Crohn’s disease and its why even making it to the world games in France is such an accomplishment.

“Sometimes it is hard for other people to understand, especially due to this disease not being visible from the outside,” Brittani said.

Brittani Nicholl, ISA team captain

“Living with Crohn’s disease does not mean you must live life with limitations, this doesn’t mean it’s easy, and there will certainly be times that you have no choice but to take a step back, but once you get back up, you’ll be stronger for it! The possibilities are endless, start believing in yourself.”

May is Crohn’s and Colitis Awareness Month. Throughout May, Crohn’s & Colitis Australia (CCA) is helping raise awareness of Inflammatory Bowel Disorders and encouraging Australians diagnosed with IBD to live fearlessly.

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Words / Sally Wood