Athletes personally impacted by Alzheimer’s
This summer, after a one-year postponement due to the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of the greatest athletes from more than 200 nations will convene for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Though each will proudly represent their home countries, many will share a connection beyond sports — their families are affected by Alzheimer’s.
Around the world, an estimated 50 million people are living with Alzheimer’s or another dementia, and countless others face the disease as caregivers. Below are eight former and current Olympians personally impacted by the disease, who have joined the global fight to defeat Alzheimer’s.
At the height of training for the 2016 Summer Olympics, the gymnast learned her beloved grandmother, Brunilda, or “Yeya,” had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
“It was devastating to see the tough lady I’d always known slip away,” Hernandez says. “So much was happening that year that I don’t think I was able to process it all.”
Hernandez persevered through her own personal heartbreak, winning gold in the women’s artistic team all-around, and silver in the individual balance beam event.
Yeya died just a few months after the Olympics concluded in November 2016. But Hernandez recognizes that Yeya’s feisty, fighting spirit lives on through her.
“I realize now that a lot of my stubbornness and drive to keep moving things forward when things get hard or aren’t going the way I want them comes from her,” Hernandez says. “I learned subconsciously from her how to be a fighter.”
Vandeweghe comes from a long line of professional athletes — including her mother, Tauna Vandeweghe, a two-time Olympian. She emerged onto the professional tennis circuit in 2008 and in 2016 had the honor of representing Team USA in doubles tennis at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Her grandfather Ernie, a former player for the New York Knicks, was an avid supporter of her tennis career. “Pal,” as she called him, loved to watch her practice and offered advice from one athlete to another. But as Alzheimer’s took hold of him, Vandeweghe witnessed the man who taught her everything slowly slip away.
“It was so hard to watch such an accomplished, strong man deteriorate,” Vandeweghe says. “Alzheimer’s stole my number one fan.”
The track and field athlete won gold at the 2016 Summer Olympics for his 8.38-meter leap in the long jump. He dedicated the win to his mother, who has been living with Alzheimer’s since 2006.
“Mom taught me to keep on fighting, and that is what I encourage other people dealing with this disease to do, whether you’re the child, spouse or friend of a person with dementia or Alzheimer’s. Talk to each other, support each other and stay grounded. You aren’t alone,” Henderson says.
After a 112-year hiatus from the Olympics, golf came back swinging at the Rio Games in 2016 — and Sharp was there to experience it, representing Team Canada.
Competing in the games was a pinnacle in Sharp’s career — one she wished her paternal grandmother, the “soul” of her family and an ardent supporter, could have seen. Her grandma began showing signs of Alzheimer’s in the early 2000s and deteriorated quickly. “I was playing really well when she passed,” Sharp says. “So it was a very weird time for me. A lot of emotions at once.”
Her family’s experience with the disease weighed heavily on Sharp, but it also motivated her to become involved in the cause as an Alzheimer’s Association celebrity champion. “Alzheimer’s is a horrible disease. Every day is hard in the life of a caregiver, which is why people need the support of the Alzheimer’s Association.”
The former track and field star’s grandmother died from Alzheimer’s in 1980 while he was participating in the Team USA Olympic trials.
“My family assured me that my grandmother would’ve wanted me to be at the trials, following my dreams,” Joyner says. “I wasn’t able to go to her funeral, so I was really upset. But four years later, I redeemed that by winning the gold medal for her.”
Joyner placed first at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles for the triple jump, becoming the first American man in 80 years to win the event.
Oshie’s shootout goal single-handedly won the U.S. men’s ice hockey team game against Russia during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Billed as one of the most patriotic moments of the games, the win earned Oshie the nickname “Captain America.”
The NHL player’s dad, Tim, was his first hockey coach and the reason for his lifelong love of hockey but watched the game from afar. “Coach,” as Oshie calls him, was diagnosed with younger-onset Alzheimer’s the year prior. Tim died in May at age 56.
Oshie uses his victory-focused mindset to cope with the reality of the disease. “A cure for Alzheimer’s may not have come soon enough for my dad and might not for me, but hopefully it will for my kids and my grandkids,” Oshie says.
The WNBA player helped bring home three gold medals for the U.S. women’s basketball team at the Summer Games in Atlanta in 1996, Sydney in 2000 and Athens in 2004, and was selected to represent Team USA during the opening ceremony in Athens by carrying the American flag.
Staley has continued her Olympic run as an assistant coach for women’s basketball at both the Beijing Games in 2010 and the Rio Games in 2016. This year, she will serve as the first Black head coach for the U.S. women’s basketball team.
Upon winning her first Olympic gold medal, Staley gifted it to her mother, who she says is the biggest influence in her life. When her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, she moved in with Staley, making her a full-time caregiver. “My mom always wanted to see me succeed. I owe her everything,” Staley says. “When the tables turned, I had to give her my all. It’s what she taught me to do.”
Paralympic athlete and Alzheimer’s researcher Cassie Mitchell thrives when navigating the unknown.
After developing a neurological condition at age 18 that left her completely paralyzed from the chest down — with significant impairments to her arms, wrists and hands, and with permanent double vision — the track star and world champion equestrian had to adapt. When her track scholarship went away, she worked hard to earn an academic scholarship to Oklahoma State University (OSU) — the school that would launch her professional career as an engineer and her athletic career as a medal-winning Paralympian.
Mitchell thrived in OSU’s wheelchair athletics program, and even as her condition progressed throughout young adulthood, Mitchell continued to adapt, trying new sports based on her abilities.
After winning two world championships in para-cycling in 2011, Mitchell set her sights on the 2012 Summer Paralympics in London, only to find out her events had been pulled for that year. Embracing her versatility, Mitchell opted to compete in wheelchair track and field instead.
“Ironically, London was my first international track and field meet,” says Mitchell, who placed fourth in the discus throw and 100-meter race. “Fourth place is often facetiously referred to as the ’lead medal.’” Looking ahead, Mitchell was determined to make it on the podium in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.
Shortly before the 2016 Summer Paralympics, Mitchell received a leukemia diagnosis — but didn’t let it stop her training. Despite ongoing chemotherapy and depleted blood counts, she forged ahead and took home a silver medal in discus and a bronze medal in club throw.
“I have signs in my home, office and laboratory that say, ’Never, never, never give up,’” she says. “And that’s my motto. Just keep going. No matter what life throws at you.”
Mitchell balances her physical pursuits with scientific ones. When she is not winning medals, Mitchell is a full-time professor in biomedical engineering and machine learning at the Georgia Institute of Technology, researching Alzheimer’s data models to increase knowledge around a disease with many unanswered questions.
“I am an ambitious person and thought [Alzheimer’s research] was where I could make the most impact,” Mitchell says. “I want to use my research to bring hope and value.”
Mitchell focuses on predictive medicine — the use of data science, statistics and machine learning — to improve outcomes and expedite learnings from bench to bedside. “If we really want to have a comprehensive view of Alzheimer’s disease, we can’t rely on one type of data or measurement,” she says.
Mitchell is currently training to compete in discus and club throw at this year’s Summer Paralympics in Tokyo. While juggling two mentally and physically taxing careers would overwhelm most people, Mitchell finds it synergistic.
“When one gets difficult, you think about the other,” she says. “The hard work is all worth it.”