Motivation is a highly personal thing. For Allysa Seely, it’s always been about the challenge and what lies on the other side: achievement, satisfaction and, hopefully, more challenges.
Seely grew up in Arizona, a passionate and gifted runner. By the time she got to college, though, she was burned out on the sport and looking for something new to get her pumped. She found that new passion in triathlon — a multisport race that combines swimming, biking and running.
“I did summer rec leagues as a smaller kid, where we had meets and everybody gets a ribbon, but I never swam competitively. No bikes at all since fifth grade,” said Seely, who’s 32.
Even so, she took up the sport and did “really well” in her first race, a fundraising event. More importantly, she’d again found her stride.
“I fell in love with the sport and found that passion and fire to keep chasing the same athletic goals,” said Seely, who joined the Arizona State University triathlon team.
The challenges that lay ahead weren’t the ones she’d planned for, however. They would be so much bigger, but perhaps so would her dreams and her legacy.
Not long after her first triathlon race in college, Seely began to experience severe neurological symptoms, especially in her left leg. She’d struggled with migraine headaches for years — headaches so intense she might “throw up on the racecourse from the lights and the noise.”
Whatever was wrong was worsening and progressing, starting to affect other parts of her body. The nationally ranked triathlete was so fatigued she slept 20 hours a day and struggled to walk across her apartment.
“I was losing feeling in my arms and legs. I knew something was wrong at that point, but it took nearly two years to get the correct diagnosis and treatment options,” she said.
Doctors ultimately diagnosed Seely with a congenital brain and spinal cord malformation known as Chiari II malformation and basilar invagination. The back portion of her brain was herniated into her spinal column, causing pressure to build, and in her brain and spinal cord. She also had a connective tissue disorder, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.
The diagnosis marked a turning point for a young woman who’d been forced to put her sport — and her life — on hold.
“For those two years we were searching for a diagnosis, I say that I wasn’t living anymore. I wasn’t an athlete anymore, or a straight A student. I was just surviving day to day,” she said. “I had lost pretty much everything of who I was.”
As she was being wheeled back for surgery, to lessen the pressure on her brain and spinal cord, Seely said she made a promise to herself: No matter what happened that day, she would find a way to start living again.
“And that was the promise I really needed to reclaim my life and get back to my roots and find who I was, and really enjoy the world that we have in front of us,” she said. “Since that day, I’ve never let my disability or my diagnosis define my dreams.”
Seely returned to triathlon, but soon was faced with other setbacks — the effects of continued chronic illness.
The surgery that helped alleviate and contain her symptoms had the opposite effect on her migraines. And her left leg remained in constant pain and spasming, the muscles of her left foot so twisted that walking was torture. For too long, it was simply the price she paid to continue living, and not just surviving.
“My foot was curled underneath me … so I was basically walking on the top of my foot. If I wanted to be active, if I wanted to go hiking with my friends, if I wanted to take my dogs for a walk, I dealt with the pain,” she said. “That was the choice I made to live my life, until damage started happening further up the chain.”
Seely saw more than a half-dozen surgeons before making the decision to have her left leg amputated below the knee in August, 2013.
“To have the quality of life, the kind of active life, I desired, amputation was clearly the best option,” she said.
Four weeks after the amputation, she had a prosthetic limb and was walking. Then running. She did her first 5K race just three months after the surgery and by early 2014 she was “back to triathlon.”
“The foot I had previously was so much more disabling than a prosthetic leg. I know that sounds so weird and it’s so inconceivable to so many people, but it’s true,” she said. “Having a foot, although it was prosthetic, it was reliable. I knew that when I stepped on it, it wasn’t just going to give out on me.”
Seely ultimately started a migraine treatment that works, and now is partnering with Eli Lilly and Company on Think Talk Treat Migraine, a program that encourages patients to talk to their doctors about the impact of migraines, and begin the quest for treatment.
She went on to earn three world championships in paratriathlon, starting in 2015, and represented Team USA — and won gold — at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio.
Seely returned from the Paralympic Games in Tokyo to her Colorado Springs home last week, as the first woman ever to win two consecutive gold medals in the paratriathlon event.
“I think for everybody it’s been a really long 18-and-a-half months, and it looks like that journey is continuing for most of the world right now. But to be a part of the Games, and see the world come together through sport ... it just really proves the mission of both the Olympics and Paralympics,” said Seely. She moved to the Springs and bought a house after the Rio Games to be closer to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Center and decided to stay because she loves the community and her neighbors.
This is where she will train for the 2024 Summer Games in Paris, where she will again defend her gold medal.
Seely said she hopes her journey, in life, sport and health, can be an inspiration to others. The message she wants you to hear is this: Don’t give up. Try everything you can. Hold on to your dreams, no matter how far away — or how big — they may seem.
The toughest competition doesn’t always come from the outside.
“The race itself took just under an hour and 15 minutes and that whole time, you’re playing through different scenarios, you’re looking at who’s ahead of you, who’s behind you, who you need to worry about,” Seely said. “And your mind runs crazy this whole time.”
There was a moment in Tokyo on Aug. 27 when Seely transitioned from the bike race to running, that she felt a flash of doubt.
“My first slap of floor on the run, my legs just didn’t feel like they normally would and I got a little nervous because I hadn’t made enough time up on that first lap to close the gap to the leader,” she said. “I think those are questions every athlete gets, and it’s how you handle it in the moment. For me, it was like ‘Well, we’re going to find out.’ I just went at it.”
On the second loop of the run, Seely said she started to feel much more like herself. Her legs “came back,” and she gained more time.
By the third loop, she’d powered through her doubt and knew for sure she would catch up to the leader.
“The fourth loop was really, for lack of a better word, a victory lap,” she said.