Lauren Lingle, now 27, was an unlikely high school athlete when she began her freshman year at Fountain Valley High School in California. She’d been diagnosed with polyarticular juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA, which was then called juvenile rheumatoid arthritis) at age 11 when she was suddenly stricken with flu-like symptoms and joint pain that wouldn’t go away.
Lingle was already athletic, playing club soccer despite having asthma, but after her JIA diagnosis, her doctors advised her to quit the sport because of the stress it put on her joints. The next year, during sixth grade, they diagnosed her with fibromyalgia. She worried about whether she’d be able to do the same things as other kids and fit in.
“That summer, though, I attended a camp for kids with arthritis and for the first time I wasn’t the only one going through it,” she says, of her first Arthritis Foundation camp, where she would later return as a counselor during her college years. “It gave me perspective and made me want to get more involved [with the community].”
Her JIA and fibromyalgia were fairly well controlled for the next few years, but the stress of starting high school combined with a car accident triggered another serious flare her freshman year. She was hospitalized and then spent weeks in a rehabilitation facility. She had to spend most of her time in wheelchair when she left rehab, and was homeschooled for the rest of the year, returning to classes for a few days toward the end of the year so she could reconnect with friends.
When she came back to school as a sophomore it was on crutches, but she’d decided she wanted to play water polo – a sport that demands significant endurance and strength. She hadn’t played before, but swimming had been part of her therapy in rehabilitation and she’d been watching her younger sister Rachel enjoy the sport.
“My mom wasn’t thrilled with the idea, and initially said no. But it was something I really wanted to do and she eventually told me that, if all my doctors said yes, then she’d agree – but that was because she thought they’d say no,” says Lingle. “But they all said, yes – if what was what I wanted, I should give it try and see how it went.”
She played water polo through high school, eventually starting on the varsity team, and in junior college and at California State University, Long Beach. “Sometimes I’d literally lay down my crutches to jump in the pool, but I loved being able to participate,” she says.
Along with sports, she continued her involvement with the Arthritis Foundation, working as volunteer and attending local and national JA conferences. Her family sometimes joined her.
“When one person has arthritis, it affects the whole family, and it helped mine to talk to other siblings and parents who were going through the same thing they were,” she says.
Meeting peers with arthritis helped Lingle as well. “Everyone wants to be ‘normal,’ and be able to have a full life and a job, and I worried about whether I could do that that with arthritis. Going to these events and seeing others with arthritis who were able to do that helped me realize I could too.”
Lingle, who now teaches seventh and eighth grade history in Costa Mesa, Calif., was recently named the Young Adult Chair for the JA Conference Planning Committee. In this role, she is focusing on helping young adults successfully navigate the years after high school.
“My hope is to give that group a little more support and guidance during a period in which they’re often branching out on their own,” she says. “We want them to know they’re not the only ones going through changes with school or with whatever careers they’re trying to take on.”
In between her work the Arthritis Foundation and teaching, which she loves, Lingle enjoys being outside and traveling, and recently backpacked though Central America. She also plays master’s water polo a few nights a week and ran her first half marathon in 2013.
Her advice for kids with arthritis? “Keep trying different things to learn what makes you feel better. Stay active but also understand your body and know when you need to rest.”