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Cedar City Triathlete Makes Comeback After Rheumatoid Arthritis Diagnosis

CEDAR CITY, Utah – Injuries or chronic illnesses can hold people back from moving the way they want to. But in some cases, moving can actually be healing and one elite Utah athlete is determined to stay active after a debilitating diagnosis.

Sarah Jarvis is a professional triathlete in Cedar City who has won several local races and placed in the top five in world championship races.

Jarvis said she thrives off the feeling.

“Just to see how much and how far you can push your body,” she said.

But last year, Jarvis began experiencing severe knee pain.

“I couldn’t bend my knee, it was so swollen and so achy,” she said.

At first, she thought it was an injury. But days before she went in for surgery, her doctor concluded the pain originated from a larger, systemic issue. She eventually was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system attacks an individual’s joints, causing pain.

Jarvis went from being at the top of her sport to not being able to fully participate in daily activities.

“I had a hard time even getting out of bed, sitting down, walking,” she said.

Even routine chores became extremely difficult.

“I had to use the grocery cart as my walker basically,” Jarvis said.

She said it was difficult for her to twist a jar open or lift a pan and running or biking was out of the question.

“I realized that I’m not going to be able to run or race for a long time, so it was absolutely devastating,” she said.

However, Jarvis tried to swim every day.

“There were times where I couldn’t really get in the pool. I’d have to like flop into the pool,” she said.

Even though Sarah Jarvis wasn’t able to bike or run when she was first diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, she got in the pool to swim daily.

Intermountain Healthcare’s Teena Aguirre-Jensen, a physical therapist at Dixie Regional Hospital, said the body and joints thrive off movement.

“They don’t like to be stiff,” she said. “It’s moving in and out of a position that allows the blood to get there, allows the oxygen to get there, allows it to heal when there has been an injury whether it’s a chronic, systemic issue like RA or whether it’s an acute injury.”

She added movement also helps with circulation.

Aguirre-Jensen said oftentimes when someone is in pain, they don’t want to move.

“I think our bodies teach us that when something hurts, we’ve got to stabilize and protect and tighten and just keep it still, but a lot of times, that’s the opposite of what we need,” she said.

However, she cautioned against painful movements that could cause a flare-up.

Jarvis started going to regular physical therapy with Aguirre-Jensen. “Every time I got out of there, whatever she did, I felt so much better,” she said.

During therapy, she practiced walking on an underwater treadmill and now can jog in water.

Sarah Jarvis said jogging underwater is one of the best ways to stay active with inflamed joints.

Aguirre-Jensen said exercising in water can be less painful since an individual isn’t bearing their full weight. “The buoyancy of the water takes a lot of that impact off of our joints,” she said.

Jarvis explained that since physical therapy provides a controlled environment, it is a very safe way for someone with a chronic condition to move. “We know how to do it safely, how much they can handle, when to stop,” Aguirre-Jensen said.

Today Jarvis is back on her bike. “You know, are you going to quit when things get hard? Are you going to keep pushing?” she said.

Although she can’t run on land yet, Jarvis is determined to race in the St. George Ironman Triathalon this spring. She thinks she can finish the biking and swimming portion of the race in seven hours.

“So I have 10 hours to walk the marathon. Who says I can’t do that?” she said. “I think it could be a pretty long, but great day.”

Jarvis said her perspective has changed throughout this journey. She said she has realized, “that it’s OK to not race at the highest level to not make it on the podium.”

Jarvis wanted her kids to know that it’s okay to finish in the dark and still have fun.