Ever since she was a little girl, Australian-born pro golfer Sarah Jane Smith, 26, has had two passions: Golf and food. A slew of golf titles Down Under lead to the links phenomenon turning professional and qualifying for the LPGA at age 22. But the diagnosis of Celiac disease a year later derailed the pasta and pizza lover’s palate.
Sarah started playing when she was 12, and immediately fell in love. “My parents raised me to believe I could do anything, so I set my sights on becoming a pro golfer and never looked back.” At 15, her swing and approach helped her land a spot on the Australian Junior Team.
In 2002 Sarah won both the Australian Junior Championship and the Queensland Junior Championship, and was ranked the top junior in Australia that year. She went on to be the top-ranked amateur in 2003.
Sarah seemed unstoppable, but en route to her receiving a card on the 2008 LPGA, she began experiencing abdominal pain, constipation and uncharacteristic fatigue. Sarah feared the worst and worried she may be following in her mother’s footsteps and developing Celiac’s disease, a digestive condition that results in an immune reaction in the small intestine that can cause damage to the surface of the small intestine and an inability to absorb certain nutrients. Symptoms are usually triggered by consumption of gluten, a protein found in bread, pasta, cookies, pizza crust and many other foods containing wheat, barley or rye.
In addition to spending her days on the links, Sarah is working to raise awareness for the disease as an ambassador for the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness. “It’s so important for people to understand this is something they can take control of. Celiac disease doesn’t have to control you,” she says.
Here’s how she manages her health.
When did your mom learn she has Celiac’s?
I think she ignored herself, and her symptoms for some time. I remember her having terrible digestive troubles when I was a child but she never pursued the cause of her symptoms. In 2004, she had been having all sorts of terrible digestion troubles, bad stomach and abdominal pain, bloating and constipation that left her unable to eat, so she finally went to the doctor but was misdiagnosed. They (the doctors) told her she had everything from IBS to gas but the pain kept getting worse.
How did she finally receive the diagnosis of Celiac’s?
In 2005, she changed doctors and went to one who really listened to her. He gave her a blood test, which at the time was relatively new, to test for Celiac’s. When it came back that she had the disease, we were so relieved. We finally knew why she was so sick.
Relief seems like an odd reaction. What about the diagnosis brought you relief?
Even though the diagnosis was shocking, it brought great relief because she had been so sick for so long. The years of misdiagnoses and ignored symptoms caused her to suffer intestinal damage and now she can’t tolerate even the slightest amount of gluten. Her digestive system is pretty messed up.
How’s your mom doing now?
As long as she sticks to a strict gluten-free diet, she’s OK.
Did you ever wonder “Will I get Celiacs?”
Yes. The doctor told us that Celiac’s can be hereditary among women in a family, and suggested I be tested but I wasn’t anywhere near ready for that. I was more afraid of the idea of having to possibly change my diet, and give up my favorite foods, than of actually being at risk for the disease. I didn’t want to know if I could someday get it and I didn’t want to give up wheat-based foods without a reason to because the gene can stay dormant, too. I didn’t think about the “what ifs,” I just lived my life.
Because the gene does run in families, I suspected I might someday have symptoms. But I hoped maybe I wouldn’t. No one really knows for sure and the doctor told us that many women have the gene and it lies dormant their entire life.
When my mum was diagnosed, I wasn’t having any symptoms, so I hoped I would be one of the women who if they did carry the gene, wouldn’t develop the disease.
When did you start developing symptoms?
In 2007, two years after my mom’s diagnosis I started experiencing some familiar symptoms.
Did you go to the doctor?
No, not at first. I knew I should go, but when I started experiencing the symptoms, I ignored them as long as possible. I just didn’t want to admit that I could be following in her footsteps. I just loved things like cakes, peanut butter, pasta, even gum, so much that I didn’t want to give them up. I thought gluten-free food meant sacrificing taste.
I stayed “in denial” for several months, pretending I didn’t need to make dietary changes.
After 6 months, the pain started to reach a level that I couldn’t ignore. I was risking my health with permanent damage to my digestive tract.
What did you do?
I followed my doctor’s instructions and my mum’s example. I cut out wheat-based foods like “regular” sandwich bread, pasta, pizza, etc.
I was shocked at what an impact that had on me. In addition to the pain and bloating subsiding, I couldn’t believe how much more energy I had.
Was it difficult to adjust to gluten-free foods?
My mum had laid the groundwork, scouring store shelves for the best tasting gluten-free breads and foods so my dietary transformation wasn’t as hard as I anticipated. She helped me realize I don’t have to sacrifice flavor or my favorite foods to stay healthy. And that I can I modify favorite recipes to make them gluten-free.
I’d always eaten wheat and never knew any better, but when I stopped eating them, I starting feeling so much better. It took a few months at least, but now I’m used to the taste of gluten-free breads and baked goods. Sometimes I’ll make a recipe and people don’t realize it’s gluten-free.
Do you ever miss foods with wheat or have cravings for foods with gluten?
No, not that much anymore, it was a little daunting at first. I missed the convenience of being able to stop for a sandwich anywhere, or eat just about anything on the run. When I’m at home, it’s easy to eat because I can make a sandwich on gluten free bread.
However, on the road, it’s hard because I can’t always find a sub shop that serves gluten-free bread. There is usually something on the menu that I can eat, but it might not be what I want or would prefer; it’s usually salad or chicken. I have found most restaurants are very accommodating and serve gluten-free meals. The trouble is I don’t always feel like huge sit down meal and it’s hard to find gluten free snacks especially on the road. As a result, I have to be prepared and always have some snacks or food with me.
Getting together with friends to eat is also a challenge. I get sick of salads and if we go to any type of restaurant, I always have to call ahead to find out if a restaurant has gluten free options so it can intrude on spontaneity of going to lunch or dinner with family or friends.
Do you experiment with recipes to enjoy your favorites foods?
I do all the time! I love to cook so I take my mother’s and my mother-in-law’s recipes and mix them up to make them gluten free. I do a lot of substituting. I also sneak gluten-free flour into dessert recipes and no one knows.
There are times when I make two meals, one for me and one for my husband. He hasn’t really gotten used to gluten-free pasta so I always make 2 pots.
Does anyone else in your family have Celiac’s?
Ironically, my dog is allergic to wheat, too. He kept getting rashes and wasn’t well so the vet ran some tests and found out his stomach can’t process wheat so we make him a special diet. He’s a very spoiled dog!