Radnor’s A.J. Clemens was 5 when his body began to change. “I started losing my hair, my skin became very hard, and I kind of got a little potbelly,” he says.
He also had stomach pains and vomiting bad enough to hospitalize him. “I never got to see the recess yard; I was usually in the nurse’s office or waiting for my mom to pick me up,” he says.
A year later, a specialist diagnosed Clemens with Celiac Disease, a genetic autoimmune digestive disorder causing sensitivity to the protein gluten found in wheat, barley and rye. “When they finally told me what I could eat, I grew 2 inches in the first year,” he says. “I kept my hair, and everything went back to normal.”
Today, at 5-foot-8 and 145 pounds, the 16-year-old is a running back and safety for the Radnor High School football team, not to mention an aspiring Olympic ski racer who hits the slopes in Chile, Austria and New Hampshire (where he attends Waterville Valley Academy four months a year). A spokesperson for the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, which supplied the ski suit he wears in every race, Clemens also gives talks on the disease at his schools.
“I can’t ever really say, â€˜This is a bad day.’ A bad day is if I’ve eaten bread, and a good day is every other day,” he says.
To learn more, visit celiaccentral.org.