THE FIT FILE: College lacrosse player uses exercise to counteract joint degeneration
During her sophomore year at Dakota Ridge High School, Keri Kopchik started having joint pain.
Growing up in Littleton, Kopchik was a gymnast for nine years, and in high school she played volleyball and lacrosse.
Then she was diagnosed with osteo (degenerative) arthritis, and she thought her days playing sports were numbered.
“When I was first diagnosed, the biggest fear I had was that I would never be able to play sports or do a lot of physical activity again,” she said.
But what she discovered was that physical activity was exactly what she needed to help compensate for the degeneration of her joints. Soon strength training was part of her routine.
She now plays for the Colorado Mesa University lacrosse team.
She says the disease hits hard in her hips, shoulders and metacarpals in her hands. At 21, she’s not letting the disease slow her down.
“I never looked at (the disease) as a reason to hold me back but a reason to make myself even stronger,” Kopchik said.
She has good days and bad days, and her left hip slips at times. When that happens, her left leg becomes shorter and it takes time to get the hip back into place.
Weightlifting and rainy days can cause her trouble, making it especially painful to run and have good stick handling skills when playing lacrosse. But she soldiers on.
“Being an athlete, the term ‘I can’t’ doesn’t fit well into my vocabulary,” Kopchi said. But her stubbornness can make things tough some times. “I always complete my workouts, it just may take me a little longer than normal.”
That determination doesn’t come without frustration when her body is telling her “no.”
“All I can do is remember that this pain is temporary and there’s always a next time to make up for it,” Kopchi said.
As she focuses on the present and playing lacrosse for CMU, Kopchik admits she has thought of what the disease might have in store for her. The disease is degenerative, and that means she likely will be looking at difficult times ahead.
Doctors have told her that she may have to have her knuckles replaced in the next five years, and if her hip keeps slipping, it could be next.
Despite this, Kopchi keeps a positive outlook. As a junior, she has one more year of eligibility and she plans to work as hard as she can for as long as she can.
“Once my competitive years are over, I don’t see myself quitting working out altogether because I’m aware of how beneficial physical activity is on the aging process, and to me specifically.”
With a major in kinesiology and a focus on health and fitness promotion, it’s also part of her career plan. Ultimately, she would like to form a nonprofit organization to deliver programs that inspire kids and adults to live healthier lifestyles. She also sees herself coaching volleyball and lacrosse.
She knows that her workouts will have to be modified as she grows older, but she plans to always be active.
However, along with osteo arthritis, Kopchik deals with Hemochromatosis, a rare hereditary blood disease with which she was diagnosed at 12-years old. It increases the absorption of iron in her body and can lead to low-energy problems.
Healthful snacking is key for her to keep her energy levels up, she said. Snacking on things such as granola bars, grapes, apples and rice cakes is part of her daily routine.
She also does a blood draw once a month, which takes between one to two pints of blood.
“Around the time of my treatment, I tend to be really tired due to the lack of red blood cells resulting in a lack of oxygen being provided to my muscles,” she explained.
She’s been gong through treatments since she was 14.
With the arthritis and the blood disease, Kopchik knows she has to stay on top of her health all the time.
Snacking, eating well, stretching, icing muscles and making sure to get rest days are all important factors for Kopchik.
Right now, Kopchik’s workout is targeted for the lacrosse season but changes throughout the year from base fitness to endurance to strength training.
Now that the season has arrived, she’s only in the weight room twice a week for about an hour each day. She does a lot of sprint training during the season.
During the off season, she lifts for two hours, six days a week. During the summer, she lifts four days a week and does plenty of cardio.
Her cardio routine varies with running, hiking and spin classes being some of her favorites.
Her weight room routine consists of lots of explosive movements such as box jumps, squats, hang cleans (a barbell exercise), pull ups, medicine ball tosses and other body core exercises.
Kopchik goes by the adage “you are what you eat.”
The key is eating healthful food Kopchik prepares herself, which provides better nutritional benefits. Limiting her fast food intake is vital, she says.
Lots of chicken, plus those healthful snacks is important. So is breakfast, which she doesn’t skip.
“I’ve come to learn that eating something as small as a piece of toast or an apple in the morning will give me double the energy throughout the day,” she said.
Other snacks include bananas, almonds, peanut butter and green peppers.
Lunch often is a peanut butter and jelly or other kind of sandwich.
Chicken, rice and salad remain a staple dinner for Kopchik.
And, of course, there’s nothing wrong with the occasional “cheat day.”
“I’m a big sucker for chocolate chip cookies,” she said.
Kopchik has learned how to live with her health problems and deal with the accompanying pain and nutritional challenges.
And she keeps the best possible attitude in the process.
“Every individual can view exercise and physical activity from a different perspective. To me, it’s nothing but life experiences,” Kopchik said. “The lessons I learn from experiences make me who I am and a stronger person.”