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updated: 7/9/2013 11:03 PM

Olympian Shannon Boxx finds a new happiness

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  • Shannon Boxx, now with the Chicago Red Stars, celebrates after the United States defeated Brazil in the women's soccer gold-medal match at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

      Shannon Boxx, now with the Chicago Red Stars, celebrates after the United States defeated Brazil in the women's soccer gold-medal match at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
    Associated Press

 
By Matt Sasso
msasso@dailyherald.com

Shannon Boxx is happy.

Surprised? Of course not. She is a three-time Olympic gold medalist, an NCAA champion, a 2005 FIFA World Player of the Year finalist and one of the veteran leaders of the Chicago Red Stars.

Yet, for more than a decade, Boxx has battled lupus and Sjogren's Syndrome, two chronic autoimmune disorders.

She also is recovering from a knee surgery that has kept her on the sideline for most of this season.

Still, Boxx is happier than ever.

Surprised? Maybe.

It has been more than a yearsince Boxx revealed to the soccer world that she was diagnosed with Sjogren's Syndrome in 2002 and lupus in 2007.

Boxx admits that it is a strange feeling to be relieved about a diagnosis, but the uncertainty was brutal. Now, her life is a little less stressful after she was able to open up about her disorders.

"I feel like I kept this secret for so long, that only my family knew that if I had a bad day I had to pretend, or I had to try to push through it and I had to fake it.

"Now I can talk to my teammates and tell them I'm not having a great day today and they help me get through it," Boxx said. "The best part is I can actually express myself now."

Boxx now has a Zen-like calm in her voice and body language. She spent the last year finding a way to get more out of life and soccer.

Things were even more troubling for Boxx before doctors diagnosed these diseases. There were times when she was unable to perform at her usual high level, times she could no longer practice. Some days the pain in her joints would take control of her soccer career and not allow her to continue, and she had no idea why.

As she sat on the perfectly cut grass and watched her teammates finish practice, she removed the multiple layers of an ice wrap from her leg. The three white scars clashed against her knee. This was her third knee surgery. Boxx reminisced about worse times.

"Before, (the diagnoses) I had no idea what was wrong. I remember, before I got diagnosed with Sjogren's, after a practice not being able to walk up the stairs to my apartment. I remember going through half of a practice and actually having to step out of a practice because I couldn't keep running."

Now, while her teammates screamed and celebrated during a intrasquad match in the background, Boxx smiled.

"I get to enjoy being able to do what I love."

Boxx's goal is to play soccer long enough to help the U.S. team win the 2015 World Cup in Canada. After that, she may think about retiring and focusing on other avenues.

She wants to run camps, coach kids and stay involved in soccer. In fact, her youth soccer camp, Pro Soccer Clinics, begins this fall.

For now, Boxx feels lucky that she has the chance to enjoy soccer again, even while playing through pain.

When she was first diagnosed with Sjogren's Syndrome, and then lupus, she realized that her pain was not normal and she felt a little less confused about fighting through bad days.

"It was almost a relief, which is weird to say, but it was almost like finally I have something that is concrete and I have something that I can deal with, manage, or even beat."

After her first diagnosis, Boxx still could not explain to coaches and teammates why she was unable to play every day. She was hiding the truth from most people around her in the soccer world. Only her family and her head coach knew what was wrong.

"I was playing for the San Diego Spirit (in 2002), and I would have my coach sit me, I would wonder if he is sitting me because of this (Sjogren's), or because I wasn't playing well enough," Boxx said.

"You want to be able to give 100 percent every day, and when you can't, you feel cheated a little."

She then spent 2007 through 2012 fearing she would be treated differently if she went public with her struggle with lupus.

Boxx continued on to win another gold medal in 2008, but she never shook the feeling that people would think she could not do something because of her disorders.

On the soccer field, Boxx was dealing with her diseases by herself. No teammates knew, no coaches knew; she was the only one who knew why she was unable to play on seemingly random days.

"Knowing without telling anybody, after 2007, it was just lonely."

However, after the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Boxx turned a corner.

"When I finally learned that it's OKto accept a bad day and just move on to tomorrow was when I changed," she said. "That's when things started to get better. I have a disease that is not stopping me from doing what I dream to do."

She finally told other people that she had Sjogren's Syndrome and lupus in April 2012.Going public with her struggle has had another positive impact on how she handles her day-to-day success and shortcomings.

Much of Boxx's stress has faded away. She no longer has to hide; she no longerhas to pretend everything is always OK.

Boxx wants to convey this message of hope to others who have lupus, and that is why she regrets not coming out with her disease earlier.

"For kids, that's an important lesson to say, 'Hey you may have these obstacles, but don't let them stop you,'"Boxx said. "I try to give hope to a lot of people that have lupus, and some may have it way worse than I do, and getting up that day makes it a successful day."

She plans to continue working with the Lupus Foundation to help promote awareness of the disease and to help fight to find a cure.

On Aug. 10, she will participate in the Walk to End Lupus Now in Naperville and again in Chicago on September 29.

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