Angeli VanLaanen is Bellingham’s lone, home-grown winter Olympian, and after years of traveling and competing on the high-flying, high-pressure world of international freestyle skiing, she is putting down roots where she started. She sounds content, relieved almost, to be watching the 2018 Games that begin Feb. 8 in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
“I kind of always thought I would end up back here,” said the 2014 Olympian VanLaanen by phone from her hometown Bellingham. “Life has been a lot quieter than the last time you talked to me.”
The last time VanLaanen, 32, was in the public eye was while soaring high in the Sochi Olympic ski halfpipe competition a year ago, when she finished 11th, with a bloody nose from a fall in the first run of finals.
She didn’t say it at the time, but VanLaanen competed in Sochi with a minor concussion, a serious knee injury, and a back fracture that was manageable because it had stabilized. “It doesn’t always turn out as you wished it could.” Her career might have been different if not for injuries and illnesses — multiple concussions, two back fractures, and Lyme disease. All of it ultimately prompted her retirement from the sport in 2015.
The upbeat VanLaanen, a 2004 Bellingham High grad, is still healing. In late December, she was laying low after shoulder surgery to fix a detached labrum that would render her shoulder useless for three months. She’ll spend part of that time, she said, rooting for former teammates and friends like Maddie Bowman, Brita Sigourney and Devin Logan as they compete in Pyeongchang. She’s also rooting for Canadian pals Kim Lamarre and Cassie Sharpe.
She said the run-up to this year’s Olympics has been a nostalgic time for her, but it’s also been a relief. “I’m grateful I don’t have that pressure any more. I can enjoy it vicariously and just cheer people on.” Her recent surgery, she said, is a reminder of the risks inherent in doing high-flying tricks 20 feet above a carved, rock-hard halfpipe wall for a living.
Now she has found a new calling that draws from the ups and downs of an elite athlete’s life. She is going to school to become a physical therapist, where she can help others heal. VanLaanen is taking prerequisite classes at Whatcom Community College in hopes of later transferring to Western Washington University’s kinesiology program.
“I’m excited to have a new career that’s about healing and helping other people recover from injuries. I think it’ll be a great job, to bring my knowledge from my athletic career to it, and be able to relate to the people I’m helping.”
Before her Olympics, VanLaanen became a national story because of her comeback to competition after a three-year absence due to Lyme disease, the debilitating condition spread by ticks that can cause long-term joint pain, severe headaches and fatigue. She said she has “taken a step back” from her work for a national Lyme disease foundation to focus on healing, a hard decision, she said.
VanLaanen estimates she has suffered six concussions in her ski career. With all the scary news linking them to brain damage in athletes, she recently got checked and said she’s OK. Her studies have unearthed a new fascination with the physiology of brain healing. “It’s definitely something I’m super-passionate about in bringing that to my next career.” She wants to help athletes and non-athletes heal but also show them how to take care of their bodies. “Toward the end of my career I wore a mouthguard and a helmet…But in my younger years in the sport, I remember when helmets were not mandatory during competitions.”
Now, she is grateful to be in one piece, and one place. She has a four-year-old niece. Her mom, Allain, still lives in town. In 2016, “I bought a cabin near Mount Baker, which has been a dream of mine since I was a little kid. That was real exciting. My brother bought a vacation cabin near mine. It was a dream for both of us.”