Lowestoft’s Olympic 2012 hopeful Nic Asher in illness battle
ONE of Waveney's leading sports stars is facing a make or break six months in his quest for Olympic glory – after his place at the games was put in jeopardy by a rare and debilitating illness.
Sailing star Nic Asher, from Carlton Colville, has been touted as a genuine medal prospect at London 2012 after starting the year in spectacular style with a victory at the opening world cup regatta.
But his preparations suffered a major blow last month when he was diagnosed with autoimmune thyroiditis – a strength-sapping condition that causes the immune system to react against the thyroid gland.
The illness left the two-time 470 class world champion struggling to recover from racing and – with his place in the GB sailing team at risk – he admitted: 'It was probably one of the lowest points of my life there.'
Since then, Nic has been battling to regain full fitness and this week he vowed to fight for his place alongside his team-mate and crew Elliot Willis as they prepare for a crucial six months of races.
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'There's definitely light at the end of the tunnel,' he said. 'The last couple of months has been a nightmare for us. But as they've not made their selection for the British Olympic team yet. We have to get back to where we were.'
With this year regarded as pivotal in the build-up to the games, 2011 had begun in perfect style for team Asher-Willis with a gold medal win in January's opening world cup event, the Miami Olympic Classes Regatta.
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However, things then took a turn for the worse.
Nic, 26, a member of Waveney and Oulton Broad Yacht Club, told The Journal: 'After a great start to 2011 with a gold medal at Miami, I returned home and did not recover as quickly as I normally do
'It took me two weeks to feel normal again. I brought this to the attention of our team doctor and we decided if I continued to feel bad, we would get a blood test, but as I felt fine again, we didn't.
'In hindsight I should have got a blood test, but when you are sailing and training it is normal to feel tired... It is sometimes very hard to distinguish between being tired because of training and being tired because of being ill.'
Buoyed by their early success, Team Asher-Willis headed off to Mallorca for training in Palma ahead of the Princess Sofia Regatta in April, but it quickly became obvious something was wrong. 'For the first thee days of the regatta, it felt like I couldn't think, I had a mental fog, it was like I was in a daydream,' Nic said.
'Somehow we managed to finish the regatta in sixth place, but I knew something was not quite right.'
Still concerned over his health, Nic had took blood tests in France, ahead of the Hyeres Regatta in April, but these proved inconclusive. 'Something was wrong, I was fatigued after the first leg of the first race, my exercise tolerance was extremely low, and I still had the mental fog,' he said.
Team Asher-Willis failed to finish in the competition, and it took two more tests to identify the problem.
'I had another test for Thyroid antibodies, the result for this was way out of the normal range,' Nic said. 'It showed that I have autoimmune thyroiditis, which is where my body believes my thyroid gland is foreign to my body and so it sends antibodies to attack the cells, so I am slowly destroying my thyroid gland.
'The thyroid gland controls the rate at which chemical reactions happen in your body and it was making my metabollic rate vary between fast and slow. The symptoms for this are quite similar, fatigue, lack of concentration, hard to think, low exercise tolerance and so forth.'
There was not sufficient time to organise sort the relevant medication before last week's Sail for Gold event in Weymouth, which has a major bearing on Olympic selection, and as Team Asher-Willis finished in a distant 19th there were genuine concerns that their Olympic dream might be over.
That would mean the pair missing out on the games for a second time after they failed to win selection for the Beijing Olympics three years ago when their build-up was hampered by an injury to Elliot.
'I was cursing the timing of this latest setback for us,' Nic said. 'We had a great start to the year winning in Miami, but then everything slowly started to fall apart around us... It has been extremely frustrating.'
Nic admitted that their selection for next year's Olympics was 'definitely in jeopardy,' but his spirits were raised this week after he saw a specialist doctor – an endocrinologist who works with top athletes and is credited with giving Sir Steve Redgrave 'a second life' after he was diagnosed with diabetes just before the Sydney Olympics. Nic told The Journal: 'Now I have the results and I know what it is and hopefully have a treatment, the aim is to be ready for the European Championships in July in Helsinki, Finland.'
Vowing to fight for a London 2012 place, Nic added: 'We need to medal at the Europeans (next month) and then at the Worlds in Perth in December... We still have an opportunity to make it and get our gold medal.'