Panther Profiles: Soccer Standout Holbert Beats Challenges Of Celiac Disease
Sept. 20, 2012
Story by Nolan Murphy, Student Assistant
MILWAUKEE - There are numerous challenges for student-athletes - the balance between athletics and academics, the rigorous off-season training, the road trips that take you away from home, and many more.
For University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee women's soccer standout Kelsey Holbert, the list of challenges also includes Celiac disease.
It's a condition that damages the small intestine. When someone with Celiac disease eats foods that contain gluten, an immune-medicated toxic reaction is created that prevents the food from getting properly absorbed.
This means Holbert must live a gluten-free lifestyle, something easier said than done for a high-level college athlete expending large amounts of energy and eating meals on the road.
"I've always been observant of nutrition, but being gluten-free and a college athlete, now you really need to learn to take care of yourself," Holbert said. "I've had to learn what your body needs to fuel itself on gamedays and during recovery. It's vital to sustaining yourself."
The first challenge Holbert faced was actually in simply finding a correct diagnosis. She started getting mild stomach aches as early as the fifth grade and within two years she was subjected to a variety of medical tests as her symptom list grew. Originally, Celiac was ruled out through a blood test but a stomach biopsy confirmed the disease. She made the immediate switch to a gluten-free diet and the change was noticeable.
As she moved through high school with the disease, she developed a solid support system around her and learned how to get the proper nutrition and energy with remaining gluten-free. Holbert says her grandma was also diagnosed and, while no one else in the family is affected, they're all supportive and knowledgeable about the disease and the concept of a gluten-free diet.
But since coming to UWM, Holbert has gotten an extra assist from assistant athletic trainer Chad Henneberry, who works with the women's soccer team. Henneberry self-diagnosed his own need to go gluten-free and started on that diet in the fall of 2011 - right as Holbert was arriving on campus. Now the two look out for each other on the road and during training, with Holbert getting the nutrition and energy she needs and Henneberry getting support to stick with his life-improving diet.
"It's demanding every day to just make sure to take care of your body as a gluten-free athlete," Holbert said. "Having Chad and the rest of the athletic training staff around has really made my time in Milwaukee great."
"I just found out about my own condition a few months before she arrived on campus, so it was great having Kelsey around on road trips and as a resource for learning to live gluten-free," Henneberry said. "It made it a much easier transition for me."
Holbert and Henneberry both note the strides they have seen in Celiac awareness at restaurants and even on-campus at UWM, where the dining halls offer gluten-free option. Henneberry actually works part-time in a local restaurant and has seen the request for gluten-free meals grow. And, the two work hard to find plenty of gluten-free options when on the road.
With all of the support around her, Holbert has more than overcome the disease, as she has excelled in her brief career with the Panthers. She claimed a spot on the Horizon League's All-Newcomer Team a season ago, starting 21 games as the Panthers advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. She earned her way to a scholarship at Milwaukee thanks to a standout career at Lyons Township High School and with the Windy City Pride, which won the Under-17 U.S. Club National Championship in 2010.
The next step is to continue to educate people on the disease, which impacts over two million Americans. In particular, Holbert is making a point to use her story to alert other young athletes that they, too, can more than overcome the disease. Holbert and teammate Stephanie Condon - who also went to Lyons Township before coming to UWM - started a 4v4 soccer tournament in the Chicago area to raise awareness for the disease. The event attracted over 100 players and helped raise money for the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center and the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness. She'd love to see the event make its way to Milwaukee.
"It would be fun to raise awareness around Milwaukee and even get younger kids involved to keep it intertwined in the women's soccer program," Holbert said. "It's fun to get so many people involved in the event and it is great do something for a cause that is very important to me."