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Published Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Before Victory Came Agony, Near-Defeat

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Before Lane Bowers, 39, could win the Senior Men's Overall division at the 2003 Junior and Senior Barefoot World Championship tournament, he had to beat the effects of a dangerous liver disease. Pierre DuCharme/The Ledger
By Lisa Coffey
The Ledger


WINTER HAVEN -- When Lane Bowers won the Senior Men's Overall trophy during the 2003 Junior and Senior Barefoot World Championship tournament held recently in Winter Haven, it was more than a victory over his opponents.

It was an affirmation of life.

Winning the trophy meant Bowers, 39, of Winter Haven, jumped over a life-threatening disease, slalomed around a drug that dealt depression and fatigue, and left in his wake an elbow injury and self-doubt.

In 1999, Bowers, a two-time national barefoot jump champion and a top-three world finisher, got a phone call from his wife, Cindy, while he was training in Texas. The results were back from an exam he took for a life insurance policy. The couple knew the blood tests showed something serious.

"Cindy was semi-panicking," Bowers said.

He had an idea of what the phone call would bring.

Bowers had Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis, PSC, a disease that affects the liver. It is the disease that killed former football star Walter Payton that same year.

It is also the same disease that 2002 U.S. Olympic snowboarder Chris Klug suffered from in 2000. Klug received a liver transplant two years before he finished sixth in the Nagano Olympics.

Characterized by high enzyme levels in the liver, PSC progressively decreases the size of the bile ducts from scarring and inflammation. This leads to a buildup of bile, the substance the body uses to break down fat in food. This buildup, in turn, causes liver damage.

There is no cure for the disease. It is treated with drugs, and in extreme cases, the only hope is a liver transplant.

Bowers' twin brother, Todd, was diagnosed with the same disease two years earlier.

"It was pretty devastating at first," Bowers said. "That pretty much put my world to a stop. The blood left my face."

According to Bowers, the disease is so rare that most doctors have never seen a case of it and a lot of doctors have no idea what it is.

The sport Bowers began as a hobby at 16, and began competing in at 21, became his protector, preventing the disease from gaining a foothold.

"We did lots of tests," Bowers said. "We determined that my health was at such a high level that by monitoring my blood we can quickly find out if I have PSC symptoms."

THE FIGHT

Bowers went after the disease like a couped-up skier looking at glassy water.

He cut out his love of Diet Coke. He gave up all forms of caffeine, sugar, bread and pasta. It was as weird as skiing with skis.

"It was the first year I competed without caffeine," he said. "I was so calm."

According to transplant surgeon Jeff Punch, proper nutrition and weight conditioning can result in some improvement for PSC patients.

Bowers continued to ski competitively, train his students and practice. But the results were minimal. The water became choppy and almost unskiable a year and a half later when he broke his elbow.

Bowers began to turn his back on the sport keeping him alive and on the people he loves. He was lost in the lake weeds.

"I was just going through the motions," he said of the time after the elbow injury.

Cindy, his wife of nine years and a registered nurse, noticed a difference in his personality.

Bowers was depressed and tired, and he was suffering from arthritis.

"I literally had a hard time walking," he said. "I felt like I was 80. It was a very difficult year. I could hardly move, let alone practice.

"I was depressed with my skiing results," he said. "It was a double whammy. It was like being sucker-punched and punched again."

Cindy, who met Bowers when they worked out at the same gym, was attracted by his vivacious personality. Now, the vivaciousness was gone, or at least not as vibrant.

Bowers felt other emotional pains.

"I could feel a little bit of disappointment from other people," he said.

Cindy went to the Internet and looked up her husband's symptoms. She found all three were a result of the drug, ursodiol, he was taking to fight the PSC.

Angry because the doctor had assured him the drug would not affect his skiing, Bowers stopped taking it.

BOUNCING BACK

His world starting returning to normal, and skiing took over.

"He had lots of early morning practices," Cindy said. "Especially on the weekends. They would be out there really early before anyone else got out there or before the wind picked up. And he spent more time in the gym."

Bowers won the 2002 Open Pro Men's National Overall title.

About this time, Bowers left his old gym and began working out at Gold's Gym, where he found a new training partner.

Gold's owner Dave Gurnsey wanted to barefoot with Bowers. Bowers almost sloughed Gurnsey off, but as a businessman, he decided to give it a chance. Gurnsey could drive a boat, allowing Bowers to ski.

The deal may have been made in heaven.

Gurnsey became an angel in Bowers' struggle to achieve a fitness that would allow him to ski again at an even higher level and, in Bowers' mind, fight the disease.

Gurnsey helped Bowers lose 20 pounds, reduce his body fat and gain strength.

"Dave got me fired up," Bowers said. "Dave's a natural coach."

It was a perfect fit for Bowers, who has high goals for his fitness level.

"I wanted to be at an Olympic level of condition," he said. "Then there's no question if I stay healthy, then I'm worthy to compete."

Bowers was the perfect student, considering in a sense, he's fighting for his life.

"He was overtrained when he came to Gold's," Gurnsey said. "His body needed some recuperation. With exercise -- it's something you can do too hard. He showed an amazing amount of resolve in doing exactly what we set up for him to do."

Gurnsey knew of Bowers' liver problem, but the disease was rarely mentioned.

"He's clearly accepted it as what he has to deal with, and he's going to make the best of himself."

The two sacrificed their families and friends for training and coaching. Bowers' body fat dropped from 19 percent to 11 percent.

He won the 2003 national championship jump title in August.

However, he was aiming for the 2003 Junior and Senior World Championship, and obstacles remained.

Reaching his goal took more than just eating and training like an Olympian. It took brains and strategy and the constant reciting of Bible verses.

During the tournament, he stayed away from the ski site on Lake Elbert, an area of stress and energy-sapping heat, to save his energy.

He called his friends at the ski site constantly so he wouldn't have to watch other skiers challenge his performances, wait unnecessarily and get nervous.

Then a freak accident nearly undid all his preparation.

During the tournament Bowers was hit hard in the left calf by a tow-rope handle. The muscle stiffened, taking with it his chances of competing.

A massage allowed him to move his foot, barely.

Bowers thinks more than muscle massage was at work.

"By God's grace I was able to compete," he said. "If you can't flex your foot in barefooting, you can't compete."

There was no quit in him.

"I had overcome so much, I didn't want to succumb to something stupid," he said.

TRYING TO BE HEALTHY

The victory allowed the Winter Haven couple to forget about PSC for a time.

"Some days, it's always in the back of our minds, and other days we have so much to enjoy, we don't think about it," Cindy said.

Currently, Bowers' only symptom is high enzyme levels in his liver. While he has no other physical manifestations of the disease, which come with a higher risk of cancer, he is on the national donor list for a liver transplant.

"There's nothing I can do. I feel great. I want to move on and try to be healthy and that's it. In one sense, it's kind of a relief," he said.

Bowers' brother is always in the back of the couple's minds as well.

Todd, a chiropractic doctor, has recently undergone a second liver biopsy. But he's reduced his enzyme levels. His symptoms, like uncontrollable itching, sometimes show themselves.

Bowers can find some solace in his accomplishments.

He not only won the overall title at the Junior Senior World Barefoot Championships, he took home the jump trophy as well. He was no slouch in the other two disciplines either. He was second in the tricks and slalom.

To cap it all off, his students, Fred Groen of New Zealand and Pat Scippa of Texas, an independent skier, both did well. Groen was fifth overall in the senior men division.

The whole weeklong tournament rekindled Bowers' spirit.

"To do this in your hometown is monumental," he said. "This was a breakout year for us. I absolutely felt like I needed that to get me going. That was one of the defining moments for me."

Lisa Coffey can be reached at lisa.coffey@theledger.com or 863-401-6971.

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