DEALING WITH CROHN'S DISEASE

Frankie Fitzpatrick

This series is brought to you by United Dairy Industry of Michigan.

Grinning and bearing it has almost become second nature to University of the Pacific swimmer Frankie Fitzpatrick. It isn’t too surprising for an athlete that spent most of his high school days swimming in the fastest interval lane — or as he likes to call it, “the pain lane.”

Fitzpatrick found his true calling by accepting challenges and pushing his body to complete physical exhaustion. That work ethic helped him soar through the ranks in recreational swimming, club, and eventually college.

But even with all of the success Fitzpatrick found in the pool, he was dealing with Crohn’s Disease — a diagnosis he did not share with a lot of people.

“I got an MRI and did a few other things. But they put me under and examined my whole gastrointestinal tract and basically told me, ‘You have Crohn’s. You need to take this medication and stay away from these foods’,” said Fitzpatrick.

My coping schedule

One of the biggest issues was fatigue.

There would be days when Fitzpatrick would be too sick to practice, or he’d struggle to recover physically from a previous workout. Anything from physical exertion to high levels of stress can bring it on.

Yet, he was still determined to make it work at the collegiate level, even if it meant suffering through a rough weekly schedule.

His entire life consisted of school, practice, eating, and sleeping whenever he had an opportunity. On Saturdays, he’d often sleep the entire day just to recover from pushing himself to the limit during the week.

Rinse, wash, and repeat.

Fitzpatrick never told his teammates about what he was going through at the time. They knew there was a justifiable reason why he was missing practices, but they never knew the extent of it.

“It’s kind of hard to just come out and say, ‘Oh, by the way, I have some disease in me,’” Fitzpatrick said. “My teammates aren’t going to get it, either way — or at least that was my thinking. They know there’s a good reason for me not being at every practice. I think it helps that I’m friends with all of them.”

The shake-up at the top

There was one person that knew exactly what Fitzpatrick was dealing with on the team, and that person was former Head Coach Peter Richardson.

Fitzpatrick confided in him when coming onto the team, and the two formed a mutual understanding of the situation.

However, when Katelyne Herrington stepped in as the new head coach, Fitzpatrick didn’t instantly feel like opening up, primarily because he didn’t take his illness too seriously.

“I thought I could be just like everyone else, and with a little extra recovery behind the scenes, I could fit in with everyone,” Fitzpatrick said.

“Ever since I was a kid, I guess, I felt like most of the interactions when it came to this illness were basically me just getting yelled at, you know? Here I was having this new relationship with a new coach, and I didn’t want to set the wrong tone.”

There would eventually come the point when Fitzpatrick was forced to be more open about his situation, though. On top of Crohn’s disease, he was also diagnosed with sleep apnea.

Eventually, in his senior year, he simply had to reveal everything which created a strong bond between Coach Herrington and Fitzpatrick.

“I was able to tell her everything about me. I’d give her updates on my health and everything,” said Fitzpatrick.

“This year was really good, and we built a strong relationship.”

I was able to tell her everything about me. I'd give her updates on my health and everything. This year was really good, and we built a strong relationship.

Bridging the gap

Being a better communicator is one of the biggest takeaways for Fitzpatrick in his time spent at University of the Pacific.

But more so than anything, he learned to put his own health above everything else.

There was a point when he’d compromise his physical well-being to avoid explaining his illness. Grinning and bearing it might be second nature, but it wasn’t a healthy mentality. It’s something he was forced to come to terms with as a student-athlete.

“I’ve learned a lot about self-care through this. I just realized I need to do things at my own pace, for me,” Fitzpatrick said.

“I’m not the average person, and I need to do things differently. And that’s not a bad thing.”

“When I get really stressed, I feel like my body definitely becomes weaker. When things like that happen, your body can shut down. So, you have to learn how to deal with that. And I’m still learning how to deal with it.”

The personal growth Fitzpatrick experienced during his time with the swim team and Coach Herrington is something he can carry with him for the rest of his life.

In many ways, those life lessons eclipse the success he’s had in the pool.

He’s now set up for future success, both in and out of the water.

“Before all of this, if someone came and talked to me about how I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing, it always felt like I was being accused,” said Fitzpatrick.

“I am definitely still learning what’s best for me, but this entire experience has improved my ability to navigate and understand how to deal with my condition better.”