Five-time U.S. figure skating medalist Mariah Bell will be representing Team USA at the 2022 Winter Olympics. Here, she shares the story of her grandmother’s journey with Alzheimer’s, and how she found strength both on and off the ice.
There are so many things that were special about Granny. She was a home care nurse who had a great outlook on life. She was petite like me. She loved running. She loved candy. And she loved animals. Granny also loved to watch me skate. She lived in Colorado. My family was often flying in and out of the Denver airport for my skating competitions, and we always stayed at my grandparent’s house.
I was skating in a Grand Prix event, Skate America. Granny had been showing signs of Alzheimer’s, and it seemed to be progressing quickly. She watched me skate, and when I went up to my family immediately after my program, she didn't recognize me. I thought: ‘This is real, and it’s scary.’ I didn't want to believe it. Ultimately Granny’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease was the same as her mom’s, my great-grandma.
I wish I would have known the seriousness of this disease before Granny’s diagnosis, and that it can completely change the people you love. Granny would be there next to me, but she wasn’t really there, her expression often blank. If you haven't seen it happen, you almost don't know it can get to that point.
The last time I ever saw Granny was at a rink. She came to watch me practice, and I gave her a hug. She remembered who I was. That hug was so special, because it felt like any other day, and she was smiling. At the time, I didn’t know that it would be the last time she watched me skate.
I was 20 when my grandma died, and pretty young when her disease symptoms began. I found strength in my extended family as my grandma battled Alzheimer’s, and I leaned into them.
To others facing this disease in your family: Feel what you are feeling, and cry if you need to. If you don't have family support, use the resources that are available
. You will need those tools.
It’s our strength as humans to share experiences, and a sense of community is so important when you are facing hurdles in life. Seeing other athletes in the fight to end Alzheimer’s is what inspired me to get involved, people like Laurie Hernandez. Seeing her speak out made me feel less alone. It’s my hope that more people talk openly about Alzheimer’s and dementia so other families will find the courage to ask for help. If you can reach a place of understanding that Alzheimer’s is not a disease that “gets better,” you will find other ways to find joy with the person you love while they are living with the disease.
Granny used to call my dad ‘Andy Pandy’ when he was young. A week before she passed away, as they went on a walk together, she turned around and said: “Come on, Andy Pandy!” It meant so much to him. Cherish those silver lining moments, but also find a support system of people to weather the storm with.
At the 2017 Nationals competition, I was skating to “East of Eden.” When I got in position, I mouthed: “Come on Granny, let's do this.” My entire family was there and the moment was on broadcast TV. It was a shout-out to the woman who meant so much to all of us. As I developed my routine to “Roxie” from the musical “Chicago,” she was constantly on my mind, from my glittery silver costume to the fun spirit of the performance, things she would have loved. Now, I talk to her every time I skate.
Granny loved cats and would feed strays in her neighborhood. After she passed away, a local cat in my neighborhood would approach and follow me as I walked to the ocean, never leaving my side. When magical moments like this happen, it makes me feel like Granny is there on a stroll with me, still loving and supporting me every step of the way.
About: Mariah Bell is the 2022 U.S. Champion and will be representing Team USA in the 2022 Winter Olympics. In October 2021, she participated in the Walk to End Alzheimer’s in Irvine, California, along with her dog Nala. “I was astounded by the number of families at my local Walk. I wanted to be part of something that made a difference for their families and my own.” Visit Mariah’s Walk to End Alzheimer’s page.
*This post was updated in January 2022.