By Rasheed Clarke
Kilos 4 Colitis has raised awareness of IBD while inspiring others living with the challenges of Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.
Chris DiGiovanni had just finished the first year of his engineering program when his health took a downward turn. The university student was blindsided by the hallmark symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease: abdominal pain, frequent washrooms trips, and blood in the stool. A colonoscopy in August 2011 led to a diagnosis of ulcerative colitis.
“My immediate reaction after the diagnosis was relief, because we knew what the issue was. I thought if it had a name, it had a treatment,” Chris says.
“It was in the days, weeks, and months that followed that I realized the severity and permanence of ulcerative colitis. That made me question how the rest of my life would unfold. It left me with a sense of hopelessness and a loss of control.”
A young man who enjoyed wrestling and boxing, Chris looked to physical activity as a way to gain more control over his life, and come to terms with his disease. As he found more effective treatments, the frequent washroom trips turned into frequent trips to the gym, leading to a heightened interest in weightlifting.
“I thought the disease would put me at a disadvantage, in a physical sense,” says Chris. “I knew I would get more exhausted quicker and I knew that some days there would need to be a break from any physical activities. I still carry that sense of disadvantage with me to this day. If you ask anyone that has spent time with me at the gym, they will tell you I lift with a chip on my shoulder.”
In 2014, after lifting competitively for a year and a half, Chris turned his athletic achievements into an awareness-raising campaign called Kilos 4 Colitis.
“As my preparations for a competition got underway, I reflected on my journey with colitis and decided it was time for me to take an active role in advocating for people with IBD. My goal was to raise awareness more than anything else. People with any sort of chronic illness feel more than just pain, and a little understanding can go a long way,” he says.
The plan was for Chris to donate 50 cents for each kilogram of his best lifts at the competition. He took to social media to post training videos and information about ulcerative colitis. Those posts brought in a community of supporters. Some committed to match his donation based off his competition performance. Others challenged him to lifts in the gym – $5 for every 300 lb squat, for instance.
“These challenges and matching donations became the mechanisms by which the fundraiser operates to this day. People credit me with creating this fundraiser, but it’s been my friends, family, and sometimes even people I don’t know, who have shaped it, helped me build it, and made it the success that it is,” says Chris.
Kilos 4 Colitis became an annual fundraiser which has raised over $6,000 to date. It also led to a blog of the same name that Chris uses to document his training, his competitions, and his ongoing experience living with ulcerative colitis.
“I would say colitis has impacted me much more mentally in day-to-day life, and this is something I’ve been vocal about in the past. Not a day has gone by in the past six and a half years that I wasn’t concerned about my health,” says Chris.
“The first thing I look for when I enter a new place is still the washroom, regardless of how long it’s been since a flare-up. I overanalyze any sort of change in how I’m feeling, and worry about the possibility of colon cancer in my future. The trials and management of ulcerative colitis run deeper than the physical symptoms.”
Chris credits making dietary changes and having the discipline to stick to them as a vital element of his wellness. That discipline serves him well in the gym as well, where weightlifting has served as an outlet and coping mechanism.
“Sometimes I can get emotional in the gym, especially when I’m coming back after a flare, but it’s not about weightlifting. Those emotional moments are expressions of my frustration with colitis, or my ability to conquer it. Having weightlifting as an outlet made it so much easier to manage the challenges and fears and disappointments of having a chronic illness. I owe a lot to weightlifting in that sense, and I’ve always tried to bring that full circle by raising awareness and funds through weightlifting.”
Last November, Chris finished second in his class at the Ontario Weightlifting Association’s Fall Classic. As he looks to the season ahead, he aims to qualify for the Ontario Provincial Championship, and continue setting an example of how you can achieve great things while living with challenges of Crohn’s or colitis.
Chris says that it’s important to get comfortable being uncomfortable, because there will be tough times, but staying calm and patient during his worst days has made living with ulcerative colitis much more manageable.
“There’s so much frustration along the way, but people can become so much stronger than they knew they could be.”
Read more about Chris’ experiences with weightlifting and ulcerative colitis in his blog, Kilos 4 Colitis.