Yes, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Is a Real Thing—Here's How I Overcame It and Went to the Olympics
Badass Women spotlights women who not only have a voice but defy the irrelevant preconceptions of gender. (Not to mention, they are exceptionally cool.) Here, former Olympic swimmer Katrina Radke shares what it took to overcome Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, regain world ranking, and establish a new multi-faceted career outside of the pool.
Why she’s a badass: The former Olympic swimmer, 46, was co-captain of the USA National Team in the late '80s and earned four gold medals in international competitions. Her athletic career was moving full speed ahead until she found herself battling a debilitating disease in 1991. Over a decade later, Radke fought her way back to make the Olympic trials in 2004 and once again earned national ranking after overcoming her illness. Since then, she’s taken on corporate ventures, written a book, become a college professor, and recently competed on Survivor. Radke is currently on the board of the United States Olympic Committee. “I’ve worn many hats, to say the least, but it's all coming from the same place of trying to help people live their truth,” she says. “That's what’s really important to me.”
How she turned her passion for swimming into a career: As a child, Radke had already set long-term career goals for herself. But she never predicted just how closely she’d follow that path. “I always loved going to the pool, and I just felt very much at peace in the water,” she says. “That's really what drove me, much more than wanting the accolades or status. But I was also very curious about how far I could push my limits. When I was in third grade, my teacher gave our class an assignment where we had to finish the sentence: ‘When I am 25 …’ I wrote, ‘When I'm 25, I will have gone to the Olympics, won many medals in swimming, coach for a couple of years, and then get married.’ I think that putting my dream out there really made a difference for me.”
Overcoming obstacles: Radke’s dreams of winning gold at the Olympics were interrupted when she got sick as a teen, and again when she fell seriously ill in college. “I went to a prep school in Philadelphia, and our coach was known globally for overtraining us,” she says. “We trained about six hours a day, six days a week. It was really intense, and I ended up getting mono when I was 15. I had to take time off because I was so sick, but I had this dream of going to the Olympics. So I never really recovered enough from the mono, and I still kept training and competing."
That triggered an even longer health battle. "In 1991, I had to stop because my organs started shutting down. My body was inflamed and just couldn’t handle it anymore. I was in denial for a while, but I finally had to accept that I was really sick," Radke says. That's when her doctors told her that she had a disorder she'd never heard of before: Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, whose symptoms include fatigue, physical pain, bad sleep, headaches, and swelling. While there is no known underlying cause, it is presumed to be brought on by factors ranging from infection to mental stress.
"I started bawling when I was first diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. I knew that I had to surrender to it and that my swimming career was probably over. It was a huge shock to go from elite athlete to literally being bed-ridden, and I was even given a disabled parking permit because I couldn't walk far," says Radke. "Luckily, my doctor hooked me up with a really well-respected acupuncturist at Berkeley who helped heal me back to health.”
Her return to swimming: Radke made a triumphant splash back into the Olympic pool in 2004, over a decade after she first began acupuncture, meditation, and yoga—as well as removed sugar, dairy, and gluten from her diet—as part of her recovery efforts. “After my health journey, I was able to come back,” she says. “In '96, I was asked to carry the torch for the Olympics. I was like ‘Oh my god, I hope I can run up the hill.’ It was fine. By 2004, I actually came back and swam at the Olympic trials just for fun, which was great. I knew I wasn't making the team, but it was more just to be able to come back and swim at all. Ironically, I ended up swimming a time that was fast enough to be ranked again. It really made me appreciate my entire swimming career.”
Her most powerful memory: It took place early on. “When I was 14, I went on my first trip with the United States National Team,” she says. “Putting on the U.S.A. warm-up suit was one of my proudest moments, just knowing that I was representing my country and had accomplished something that I always dreamed about. I was with all these Olympians—who were my idols—and I was in awe of them. We broke the American record during a relay and won gold. As the national anthem was playing, I remember feeling so proud of myself in one respect, but in another respect, I was mad that I had the third fastest flip and not the first fastest. It's funny what goes on in your head. Even now, when I hear the national anthem play at my kids’ events, I always cry. It impacts me for some reason.”
Her post-swimming passions: Since her last professional swim race, Radke hasn’t sat still. Instead, she’s pursued a number of passions. “Even when I was on the national team for swimming, I was always so fascinated by human behavior,” she says. “After college, I went to grad school for marriage and family therapy. I did an internship through Yale School of Medicine and worked with the United States Board of Ed, creating programs for school systems to help teenagers with substance abuse. I also worked in sales in the neuroscience division of the pharmaceutical industry for a couple of years before working on the Olympic bid for San Francisco, which we didn’t get because of funding. I ended up becoming a college professor, and I teach human sexuality, sports psychology, and general psychology online now. My husband and I also have our own business where we do peak performance work with athletes as well as people from the corporate world.”
Who inspires her: “Barbara Walters was such a pioneer in an industry dominated by men—especially back then,” she says. “She was able to get the truth out of people, and she was just way ahead of the game. She had to deal with a lot of people who didn’t truly have her back, but the ones who really did support her allowed her to keep moving forward. And she worked her butt off to get to where she wanted to be. Oprah, too, of course.”
What she’s learned: A powerful message about pursuing your dreams—but accepting that some things are just fate. “It's great to be competitive, and it's great to have strong will, but in the end, there's something much bigger than that,” Radke says. “I’ve gone through this huge physical and spiritual journey, and I feel like I've come out a very happy person.”