Meet former Winter Olympian Steph Prem

It took a career-ending injury for Winter Olympian Steph Prem (nee Hickey) to be diagnosed with coeliac disease. Not looking back, Steph has a renewed passion for health and fitness, recently opening her own Pilates studio on Melbourne’s buzzing Chapel St.

I was never one of those kids that grew up wanting to be an Olympian. Up until I was about 17 or 18 snowboarding had just been a hobby. Maybe I didn’t realise quite how good I was at it. I used to race the slalom, but then boardercross became an Olympic event in 2006, which I’d been dabbling in on the side of my racing career. I loved the jumps and the bumps and the thrills and the spills. So when I was 18 or 19, I made the leap, deciding that it was more than just a hobby and passion and it could be a professional career.

Just weeks after the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, a horrific crash left me very badly out of shape and wrecked my competitive career. I’d already had a bad crash at the Olympics, so my body probably wasn’t in the best shape. I knew in the air that I was in a lot of trouble. I didn’t land on my feet – I landed on my back. I fractured a couple of vertebrae, compressed a few discs, dislocated my hip, broke five ribs and injured my pelvis. It was definitely the worst accident I’ve ever had – I’d had a solid career without anything too serious happening. But that one knocked me for six.

I had to learn to build myself up from the inside out again. Having this accident has totally opened my eyes to the world of rehabilitation – both mental and physical rehabilitation. It’s taught me to be open minded and a lot of pain management skills and coping mechanisms I may not have known before. Changing my diet and clinical Pilates are the stand out heroes in my road to recovery.

Diet was vital to my recovery because my body was riddled with inflammation. The moment I made changes to my diet was the moment I started to have results and less pain. I eat gluten-free, dairy-free and also organically when I can.

As an athlete and especially leading up to the 2010 Olympics, all I did was carb load. I’m married to an Austrian, so schnitzels were just a staple part of our diet! After my accident my nervous system had a melt down and I was just so exhausted and run down all the time. I went to see so many specialists and doctors for what I thought was chronic fatigue syndrome. Eventually someone said, ‘Are you sure you’re not allergic to anything?’ And I said, ‘No, I’ve been eating everything my whole life.’ I couldn’t believe it when my test for coeliac disease was positive. I changed my diet 48 hours later and immediately felt better.

I found the transition to a gluten-free life relatively easy because my husband is such an amazing cook – he makes me some beautiful European meals sans gluten (hello rice crumb schnitzels!) I eat relatively clean and simple and it’s actually really easy. I’ll never go past a gluten-free pancake. That’s my absolute weakness – a good glass of pinot and a gluten-free pancake is the way to my heart.

I now feel human again! I went from an entire year after my injury where I’d have to have an afternoon nap every day because I was so exhausted, to not ever needing a nap again. I completely changed my training regime, my lifestyle, everything. I sleep much better, therefore I recover much better and I have dramatically lowered the inflammation in my body. I also feel it’s made me more mindful about what I put into my body and has made me a healthier person overall. My diet is probably better now than it was when I was an elite athlete. Go figure!

Even though I am still healing, this year has been the best I’ve had. I absolutely love fitness, health and exercise – I’m completely addicted and obsessed with it. I’ve redirected the passion I had for competitive snowboarding to my business (Premium Performance and Premium Performance Pop-Up Pilates) and I’m being rewarded big time through my beautiful clients and their results. I’m so glad that I can inspire other people to love fitness and Pilates as much as I do.

This story first appeared in Issue 3 of Australian Gluten-Free Life as ‘Gluten-Free Warrior. Steph Prem – Bouncing back to health.’ For more gluten-free articles and recipes pick up a copy of Issue 3 from our store today.