Former Steamboat Springs High school track, cross country standout takes on Parkinson’s, Ironman

Sara Whittingham, left, in front of the Today Show studios with her sister Julie.

Sara Whittingham was a Steamboat Springs High School track and cross country star, ran track and cross county at the U.S. Air Force Academy and even competed in the Steamboat Marathon on her wedding day.

Running and competition have always been a part of who Sara is, but after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease three years ago, she found herself racing against an opponent she never imagined.

“It turns out the very best thing that you can do to help manage Parkinson’s is cardiovascular exercise,” Sara said. “When I was first diagnosed, I had one doctor telling me that I shouldn’t be running anymore because Parkinson’s patients are at an increased risk of falling. The worst thing I could have done is completely give up running.”

Not only is Sara still running, she bikes and swims, and she will take the starting line Oct. 14 at the 2023 Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii.

“I feel this could be something where I can help a lot of people as far as inspiring people to realize that just because you have Parkinson’s — or any difficult diagnosis — you can still set and meet goals,” Sara said. “It’s OK to take some time to grieve and struggle with it for a while, but then set some goals and try to go after them.”

Parkinson’s is a brain disorder that causes unintended or uncontrollable movements such as shaking, stiffness and difficulty with balance and coordination. Symptoms usually begin gradually and worsen over time. As the disease progresses, people may have difficulty walking and talking.

In November 2020, shortly after beginning a new job at Cleveland Clinic Marymount Hospital, Sara noticed her left arm was shaking while she was sitting on the couch one evening with her family.

“I thought to myself, ‘That’s weird. Why would my arm just start shaking?'” Sara recalled. “I typed ‘unilateral resting arm tremor’ into Google, and the page that came up had one article after another about Parkinson’s disease.”

Sara Whittingham is shown with her family including, from left, Sara, Grace, Sydney and John Langell.
Sara Whittingham/Courtesy

“It was at that moment that my world just stopped,” Sara said. “As I read more about Parkinson’s disease, I realized that I had been having symptoms for years that I chalked off to getting older or being super tired and over extended.”

Sara had felt stiff getting out of bed in the morning, and her neck was so stiff that it was painful to turn her head.

“I would shuffle about for a few minutes until I got going, and then I would be fine,” Sara said. “Going downstairs, I had started going one step at a time because my left hip was so tight all the time. My husband was always getting on my case to finish my sentences. It turns out decreasing the volume of your voice at the end of sentences is very common in Parkinson’s patients.”

After her diagnosis, she experienced crippling anxiety and depression for the first time in her life.

“I became so anxious that I wasn’t sleeping and ended up in a state of mind where I could not think clearly because I was so sleep deprived, and I felt like I was losing my mind along with the career that I loved and had worked so hard for,” Sara said.

She was considering going on disability, fearing that she could no longer perform as an anesthesiologist, but Cleveland Clinic physician health advocate Dr. Susan Rehm suggested that Sara take a month off, meet with doctors and adjust the medication she was taking.

“I am so incredibly grateful for this,” Sara said. “After some medication adjustments and having more time and energy to exercise, I was eager and ready to get back to work. Looking back, the period after my diagnosis followed the stages of grief closely. In my mind, Parkinson’s was a disease that only affected older men, and every now and then someone younger might get it, but certainly not me.

“I was healthy, and I had been active my whole life,” she continued. “I had no family history of Parkinson’s disease, and now I visualized myself being on disability, shuffling about and looking like an old grandma in a few short years.”

Sara, who lives in Aurora, Ohio with her husband John Langell, is doing everything she can to make sure that doesn’t happen.

In addition to maintaining a regular fitness regimen, she stays up to date on advancements, and recently took part in a Peloton study that examined the impacts of rigorous exercise and its effects on those with Parkinson’s.

She also stays busy caring for her daughters Sydney, who is running for her high school track team, and younger sister Grace, who competes with her middle school team. Both girls seem to be following in the tracks of their mother’s running shoes.

Sara and her sister, Julie, led the Steamboat Springs High School cross country teams to state titles in 1990 and 1991. Sara also won state titles in both the one- and two-mile events with the high school track team.

Sara will be dealing with the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease for the rest of her life, but she is optimistic that staying active has helped ease the symptoms. She is still at work three to four days a week and is making the most of her time to remain active.

She received a VIP inspirational athlete invitation to compete in the Ironman World Championships just eight weeks ago and said she will be ready to go when she heads to the starting line. She also understands that this opportunity is about more than her finish time.

“By sharing my story, I hope to inspire others, educate about the importance of exercise in slowing the progression of Parkinson’s disease and bring to attention that PD affects veterans at a much higher rate,” Sara said. “We also have the goal to raise $1 million for PD research and programs to improve lives of PD patients.”

Sara will have a big opportunity to do that Friday with the “Today Show with Hoda and Jenna,” where Sara will share her story in a segment that is slated for 10:26 a.m.

“I think I’m probably close to being in the best shape I’ve ever been in my life right now,” Sara said. “Because I feel like my life and my future depends on it.”

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