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<p dir="ltr"><span>Lauren Perry runs during the 2016 Mountain Dew Gator Invitational — her second race of the season. "I hope people who know me and see what I've gone through will use it as motivation," Perry said.</span></p><p><span> </span></p>

Lauren Perry runs during the 2016 Mountain Dew Gator Invitational — her second race of the season. "I hope people who know me and see what I've gone through will use it as motivation," Perry said.

 

About four times a week, Florida cross country coach Paul Spangler would meet his workout partner in the weight room around lunch time.

He would get demolished.

“She’d crush me on the bike, crush me on the StairMaster, crush me on the abs,” coach Spangler said.

She was redshirt sophomore Lauren Perry.

A young cross country and track athlete at Florida, Perry was tested at an early age. She was diagnosed with both bilateral compartment syndrome and rheumatoid arthritis, setbacks that kept her out of the majority of her collegiate races two years ago.

Through hours of training and rehabilitation, medical procedures and self-determination, Perry fought to return to the field.

The proof is in the weight Spangler lost at the hands of Perry and their lunchtime workout routines.

“I’m probably around 10 pounds lighter because of it,” Spangler said.

Perry fought through the limitations her own body presented and attacked them head on.

“Each day brings new challenges,” Perry said. “You attack your obstacles, you get through them.”

• • •

When Perry first got to the University of Florida, running was a large part of her life.

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While attending high school in Richland, Washington, she had an extremely successful career, earning eight titles during her senior outdoor season alone.

Moving onto college competition was supposed to be an exciting challenge. However, the pressure of higher-level competition wasn't consuming Perry, but rather her own body’s limitations.

She visited an orthopedic surgeon, who told her that she had bilateral compartment syndrome, a painful condition that cut off the supply of nutrients and oxygen from reaching her legs. Perry needed to have surgery on both of her legs and missed the 2014-15 cross country and indoor track seasons.

She recovered before the outdoor track season began, though, and was able to race during the 2015 outdoor season, even making it to the SEC Championships.

But after another competition at U.S. junior nationals, something wasn’t right.

Perry hurt everywhere. Her entire body ached when she woke up on multiple occasions.

“I felt like I’d been hit by a truck every morning,” Perry said.

After all the time she had to take off to recover from her surgeries, Perry was back to where she started. She visited doctors, who told her they didn’t know what was going on. She continued constant blood testing. She felt as though she had to go in twice a week just to get it drawn.

Eventually, the doctors led her to a rheumatologist, who gave her disappointing news: Perry was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, a painful disorder that inflames the joints in the hands and feet. It was a bizarre diagnosis for Perry, who was just 18. Rheumatoid arthritis usually begins after a person is 40-years old, according to medical research group the Mayo Clinic.

Perry sat out the entire season while she took medication that she hoped would halt the progress of the disease. It wasn’t working.

Perry said the doctors increased dosages only for the problem to continue.

Didn’t it get exhausting to continuously fight? To overcome an obstacle, just to have an another one take its place?

“It could be worse,” Perry said, her commitment to getting on the field never dwindling.

Perry’s mother, a rheumatologist, knew the severity of her condition. But she also knew the importance of running in her daughter’s life. So she told her to keep pushing.

“I think if I had told them I wanted to call it quits, they probably would’ve encouraged me to give it more time,” Perry said.

Finally, the medication started to work. After nearly four years since she had raced in a cross country meet, she was cleared to practice for her return.

Training began in June as Perry eased her way into a normal schedule. That’s when Perry and coach Spangler started to exercise together.

“I think it was really good for both of us,” Perry said.

The time allowed for both of them to stay in shape and also develop an athlete-coach bond that can be lost as an intense season flies by.

While much of her success came from her own will to continue on, Perry said that others played just as big of a role: her parents, coaches, teammates and the team doctors.

“You want to get better not just for yourself,” she said, “but for them and their time and efforts.”

• • •

Nearly three months later, the first meet of the year was fast approaching.

Florida’s runners prepared for the Covered Bridge Open in Boone, North Carolina on Sept. 2. However, Perry had yet another issue.

She was dealing with strep throat and had been for the past two months. Her arthritis medication weakened her immune system, preventing a quick recovery.

But with all of the issues she had already been through just to get back to this moment, something like strep throat wasn’t going to stop her.

Not only did she finish the race, but she performed above expectations.

After 18 minutes and 49.79 seconds, Perry rushed through the finish line. She finished ninth out of 97 runners in her first collegiate cross country race.

And the success hasn’t slowed down.

In the Gator Invitational on Sept. 24, Perry finished sixth out of 123 Division I runners, helping her team to another first-place finish.

In the most competitive meet yet, the Paul Short Run, Perry finished 48th out of 405 total finishers.

“She’s just a huge motivation,” teammate Maddox Patterson said. “The fact that she can do that … it’s just super motivating for all of us.”

• • •

Lauren Perry doesn’t want to be remembered for the constant obstacles that blocked her path.

She wants to be an example to others, showcasing that it is possible to fight and succeed through even life’s biggest misfortunes.

“There’s a lot of crappy things about having rheumatoid arthritis, but there’s nothing I can do about it,” she said. “Just find and celebrate the good things in life.”

Through a surgery that halted her freshman debut, a disease that will affect her for the rest of her life and even her chronic strep throat, Perry decided that she wouldn’t let the odds determine her career.

Now, as the Gators prepare for the NCAA Pre-Nationals on Saturday, Perry will get the chance to compete in a race that wasn’t guaranteed less than one year ago.

“I hope people who know me and see what I’ve gone through will use it as motivation,” Perry said. “There is a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Contact Sky Lebron at Slebron@alligator.org and follow him on Twitter @SkylerLebron.

Lauren Perry runs during the 2016 Mountain Dew Gator Invitational — her second race of the season. "I hope people who know me and see what I've gone through will use it as motivation," Perry said.

 

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