Mar 22, 2019
“You don’t need to be superhuman”: How a small-town hockey player made it to the NCAA in the face of Crohn’s disease
Merek Pipes was seven years old when he started playing hockey.
He also danced, swam, sang, played piano, skied, and played soccer.
“At that age, my parents had me try just about every activity under the sun,” he said.
But there was something special about hockey.
As a young boy living in Cobble Hill, BC, Merek got a sense of the grandeur of the community: “All my friends and family played it growing up.” Even at that age, he understood hockey was not just a sport—it was part of Canada’s national identity.
“I loved hockey because everyone else loved hockey.”
Merek Pipes was eight years old when he discovered his life passion.
Over the next two hockey seasons, he had discussion after discussion with his parents, who were concerned about the extra stress and pressure that came with being a goalie. Still, he was sure of the role he wanted to play.
“I became a full-time goalie at [the age of 10], and have never looked back.”
Merek Pipes was 14 years old when he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease.
He received the diagnosis about a year and a half after his first flare-up begun.
“Being a 14-year-old [with] the bone development of a 12-year-old and only 75 pounds on my 5’0” frame made it incredibly hard to compete with the much more developed teenagers I was playing against.”
In competitive sports, body strength and size are paramount.
“When I found out I wasn’t just a late bloomer, and there was a disease causing my ailment, I thought my career was over. I was devastated. I didn’t think I could ever compete.”
Once a top player, Merek quickly fell to being below average. He was initially unable to get drafted by the best teams. Even within his small, rural hometown, he wasn’t expected to go far in hockey.
A list of all the NHL players that have succeeded while living with Crohn’s disease did little to calm his anxieties.
“I remember thinking very few people had done it, so it must be near impossible! Besides, those people were the elite, special ones. I was just me.”
Despite the cards he had been dealt, Merek found it within himself to push forward. Playing hockey was his passion—and he would not let his Crohn’s diagnosis stop him from doing what he loved.
He knew he would have to work twice as hard to catch up to his peers.
In response to one question, Merek recalled a particularly candid piece of advice he received from his childhood coach.
“He told me something to the effect of: ‘no one cares you have Crohn’s. Coaches and scouts want to see results. You having Crohn’s has nothing to do with those results.’
“While his misunderstanding of the [impact] of Crohn’s may have been a gross understatement, I came to realize he was right. My Crohn’s didn’t matter to the outside world. I wouldn’t get a handicap, and I wouldn’t get treated like a wounded animal if I didn’t let myself come across that way. His words made me realize I didn’t need to be the victim. And while his message originally came across as generally negative, I have adopted it to be positive. No one cares I have Crohn’s. All I need to do is work hard, and if I am performing, Crohn’s will not stop me. No one cares I have Crohn’s, not even me.”
Getting diagnosed in his formative years enabled Merek to develop his character and work ethic, and he attributes much of his achievements to the adversity he had to overcome.
While Merek is overwhelmingly positive about his experience, his journey was far from easy. Like many others living with chronic illness, he has his mental ups and downs. It is the unwavering support and encouragement of his parents that helped him get through the latter: “[they] gave me the confidence to buckle in and push through those times.”
His coaches have also been understanding of his situation and supportive of his treatments. They have treated Merek the same as his teammates—just another player on the ice.
For the most part, Merek has done a good job of keeping the flare-ups at bay. He avoids sugars, dehydration, greasy foods, and most variations of junk foods. He aims to get 10 hours of combined sleep per day. And, of course, he always makes time to exercise in his daily routine.
“At times during the off-season, when I have succumbed to a more sedentary lifestyle, I have felt my Crohn’s get worse,” he said. “I find my day-to-day health has a huge influence on how my Crohn’s presents itself.”
Today, Merek Pipes is 20 years old.
He is currently living in Swan River, MB, after starting the hockey season in La Ronge, SK. Next year, he will move to Schenectady, New York to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in Engineering at Union College and play for the NCAA Division 1 hockey program.
When asked what advice he would give to other young athletes living with inflammatory bowel disease, he spoke about how he transformed the adversity he faced early on in his career into a strong work ethic and a positive outlook—traits that inevitably propelled him forward, toward success.
“A setback [is just a setback]. It never has to mean ‘the end.’”
He wanted to share his story to reach out to others who feel the same distance and loneliness that he experienced when first diagnosed.
“I want to show it can be done. You don’t need to be superhuman. You don’t need to be special. Whether it be athletics, art, or academics, Crohn’s does not spell the end of a passion.”