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Editor’s Note: This is the second of a 2-part series by Pompe columnist Bruce Campbell detailing his remarkable journey from the wheelchair to athletic excellence on the world stage.

I have been living with a rare glycogen storage disease known as Pompe disease. I have the late adult-onset Pompe disease where symptoms only started to affect me later in my life. Pompe results in the body being unable to break down glycogen to fuel our entire body and in turn, starts to break down muscle to fuel vital organs and movements, which results in severe pain and muscle weakness. It affects all muscles, especially heart and lung muscles, which regulate all other muscles and organs in our body.

Over the past 5 years, I have been on enzyme replacement therapy for Pompe. I have witnessed huge growth in my body, my lungs got stronger as well as the limb-girdle area of my body, which seems to be most affected by Pompe. The more I felt comfortable and confident that I was becoming healthy, I started to compete in some long-distance cycling events and swimming events. 

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Read Bruce’s first column in this series

I truly have a passion for triathlon and occasionally do try and compete in a couple of events but I always have troubles with my body and running. Running causes my body to rely a lot more on glycogen and the problem comes in when it can not access the glycogen stores so it then turns to breakdown my muscles which causes severe muscle trauma to my body and causes huge amounts of pain and sometimes inability to walk.

In the last 2 years, I have learned of a new multisport discipline called Aquabike, which is a swimming and cycling event. I started entering these events and really enjoyed them as my body allows me to swim and cycle, then I do not have to worry about the run causing harm to my body. 

Standing tall, front and center, RDA Pompe columnist Bruce Campbell, receives his medal after competing in the World Triathlon Competition. Credit Bruce Campbell

At the beginning of this year, I qualified for the South African team to go and compete at the World Aquabike Age Group Championships in Abu Dhabi. I thought this was a great opportunity to follow my passion for multisport as well as show that you can still chase your dreams after being diagnosed with a rare disease. 

In November 2022, my wife and I arrived there a few days before the event to adjust to the extreme heat in Abu Dhabi both when cycling as well as the temperature of the ocean when swimming. Preparations went well and race day came quickly with a lot of anticipation and nerves on how my body would cope with a harder swim and bike effort than I usually train to. 

Race day came and immediately any insecurities came to the surface when I viewed all the incredible fit-looking athletes that I was surrounded by from all countries in the world. I focused all my energy on myself and knew that all I am able to control is my effort. If I can perform to the best of my ability and limitations with Pompe then I would be proud to have done the best I can and would not mind what position or placing I finish in. 

I have worked extremely hard on trying to develop strategies to gain control of the stress in my body, as I have found that when the stress hormone cortisol is present in my body I tend to have more symptoms from my disease. I have worked on various breathing techniques and meditation techniques, which have helped a great deal to lower my heart rate when in stressful situations such as a race start.

It is a nonwetsuit swim due to the warm ocean water which makes the swim a lot tougher as you don’t have the extra buoyancy assistance of a wetsuit. I started the swim trying to find clear water early in the race so that I would not get hit by other competitors. I could swim at my own pace rather than trying to follow someone else’s pace. At the end of the 1500 m swim, I felt that I had a really good swim and managed to come out of the swim in first place, just 15 to 20 seconds ahead of the next competitors. This already exceeded my expectations of how I thought I would fare against the others. 

I started the 40 km cycle with a very slender lead on everyone and I started off easy on the bike to ensure I do not go too hard, which will result in my body searching for glycogen. I also ensure that as soon as I get on the bike I start consuming liquid energy in the form of cadence citrus gels which will deliver fast-absorbing sugars and electrolytes to help my body absorb these simple sugars. I learned that this fueling really helps prevent my body from looking for glycogen and my muscular system can mainly rely on fat and these simple sugars to fuel the exercise effort.

I felt comfortable for the first loop of the bike leg and then I tried to split the 2nd lap and risk a bit more by going as hard as I could to get to the finish. To my absolute disbelief, only one rider came past me and when I crossed the finish line they announced I was Aquabike Age group 35-39 World Champ and 2nd overall. This has been a true highlight of my life and a dream come true, a dream that I had many years ago before I was ever diagnosed with Pompe. And that’s a dream I thought had disappeared once I was diagnosed. 

Everyone has their own dreams and aspirations, I do believe we all have our own challenges and hurdles as well in order to try and achieve these dreams. Sometimes having to adjust your focus along the way may happen but the main goal and dream should always remain there for us to strive towards.