2010 has been the year of the comeback for retired pro racer Tammy Jacques-Grewal, first in cross country ski racing, then in mountain bike racing. After nearly dying of an illness that was misdiagnosed for years, Jacques-Grewal was just happy to be alive as she lined up for the start of the elite women's cross country mountain bike race at the US Mountain Bike Nationals last month.
The 44-year-old lives in Colorado and decided to celebrate her renewed health with some bike racing and a weekend out with her husband, former pro mountain biker Rishi Grewal, and their two children, Dmitri, 6, and Sofia, 9.
Jacques-Grewal took a somewhat early retirement from pro racing in 1999, when she was 33 years old. "I was sick, but we didn't know why. The doctors never could figure it out. In the later part of my career, I'd have random stomach pain. My abdomen would just start hurting, and I'd have really good days and then really bad days. and all of the sudden I'd just feel horrible."
After retirement, Jacques-Grewal's health problems only got worse, but not significantly so until after she'd had two healthy pregnancies.
"Over the years, I was hospitalized several times for what doctors thought was high enzyme levels and hyponeutremia. They tried to bring my body back in balance. I always ate well and loved to cook, but food was going right through me. I was wasting away.
"I started getting really, really sick in 2006, and we didn't know what was going on," she said. "They were doing blood tests, and I didn't have any weird diseases. I got to the point where I couldn't drink real water any more. I could only drink bubbly water. I lived on San Pellegrino and applesauce. It was horrible." Before long, even the applesauce wouldn't stay down, and she weighed only 88 pounds (39.9 kilograms).
It wasn't until she and her family moved to Steamboat Springs and she found a new doctor, that the mystery was solved. "Dr. Harrington listened to me for an hour and then told me I needed to have a cat scan. He thought I had giant stones in my pancreas and said, 'There is a huge restriction in your pancreatic duct and no wonder you feel horrible because the enzymes are eating up your pancreas and you could die. You need to take care of this.'"
Ultrasound images hadn't been good enough to diagnose the problem, so Jacques-Grewal was sent to Denver for an MRI and to work with specialists. "The pancreas is made of spongy tissue and it's hard to sew up," she said. "They told me they'd have to go in through scoping, and if something was torn in the process, it would mean more surgery."
She started treatment in 2008, and in March of 2010, she had her last procedure. "I finally got rid of all the stones," she said.
During her treatment, doctors explained to her that her illness probably stemmed from a cycling accident that happened in 1993. "I lacerated my kidney when I was in Fruita [Colorado] on Mary's loop testing a new mountain bike, a Barracuda with a new fork," she said. "Something happened when I went over. Sara Ballantyne, Susan DeMattei and Julie Furtado were there. Sara went by me and was like 'oh my god'. They think that at that time, the impact crimped the pancreatic duct ... like a bent pipe."
Back in action
Near the end of all the medical treatment, Jacques-Grewal started feeling good again.
"I cross country ski raced this winter," she said. "I started training on my bike three and a half months ago. I figured that since nationals were in Sol Vista, I'd go have fun and see what it's like being on the circuit and celebrate being alive. I'd almost died several times." She pointed to one discolored, quarter-sized scar on her wrist, where an IV had blown up and left a wound down to her bone.
Her comeback was helped in large part by 2001 mountain bike World Champion Alison Dunlap, who's taken on the role of coaching Jacques-Grewal since April. "I hooked up with Alison and we're having fun together. It's perfect because she knows me and we raced on the road together and on mountain bikes." Jacques-Grewal has been doing her local race series in Steamboat Springs and is being supported by Ericson, Honey Stinger and her husband and children.
"I'm glad I retired because I wouldn't have two beautiful children," she said. "I have no aspirations to be a pro mountain biker again. I'm having fun. I want to be a good mom and a good role model. I want to inspire my kids and I'm just thankful to be alive. It was a real struggle, it was hard to function."
Racing a nationals was a bit of a shock after competing in her local series. During her career, Jacques-Grewal was used to starting at the front of every race. Coming behind was a different experience.
"It was hard not to start up front. I was getting squished into the barriers and on the climb, I was waiting and waiting," she said. "A few times I got pushed off the trail and one time, a girl nudged me into the trees and I fell off my bike.
"I kept thinking 'ok, keep your head in there'. It was a fun course, and I think they did a great job designing it," she said of the Granby venue. "As probably the oldest woman out here, I was enjoying picking off the women in front of me and was excited just not to be lapped."
Jacques-Grewal finished 15th, 14:07 behind winner Georgia Gould.
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Sue George is an editor at Cyclingnews. She coordinates all of the site's mountain bike race coverage and assists with the road, 'cross and track coverage.